Infrastructures to support business information systems
Very large companies began to use of computers in the 1960s. The first applications were for wages and salaries processing, the production of sales invoices and receivables ledger accounting. These applications automated existing operations allowing greater accuracy, more speed and cheaper processing. At this time the IT operations would have been called ‘data processing’.
Once transactions are processed by computer it is easy to analyse those transactions to produce information that could be useful for management. For example, once the sales ledger is computerised it is easy to produce aged receivables listings. These additional management reports became common in the 1970s (and are still important) and IT operations became known as ‘management information systems’ (MIS). The systems could also be programmed to make simple decisions such as comparing inventory levels to production plans to enable automatic stock ordering. The simple decisions are known as programmable or structured decisions, meaning that there is a well-defined way of getting to the correct answer. MIS primarily allows companies to keep their costs down, helping them to move towards cost leadership, through a combination of automation and rationalisation.
At the beginning of the 1980s, spreadsheets were invented and this allowed computers to be used to help managers make unstructured (non-programmable) decisions. For these decisions there is no definitively right answer. For example, what should next year’s budget look like? At what price should a new product be launched? Financial models on spreadsheets allow managers to try out 'what if?' experiments where they try out different combinations of assumptions and try to home in on a credible answer. These systems are known ‘decision support systems’ (DSS): they do not make the decision but help managers make decisions.
More sophisticated DSS systems can combine, for example, computer aided design and computer aided manufacturing systems to enable new products to be brought to market more quickly: data warehousing (recording historical transaction data) and data mining (trawling through that data to learn more about customers’ preferences and buying patterns). Both of these techniques can help with differentiation and focus strategies.
Somewhat later, around the 1990s, executive information systems were developed. These were of particular use to senior managers and they have a particular emphasis on giving access to external information that is needed for operational and strategic planning. It was, of course, in the 1990s that the Internet began to expand rapidly and much more external information became available. Executive information systems also emphasise flexibility so that executives can see company data in a wide variety of ways. Typically, such systems would initially present sales for the group, but upon double-clicking on that figure, it would split into sales by division. Double-clicking on one of those figures might show the sales to the division’s 10 key customers, compared to the comparable period last year. This process is known as drilling down.
Databases are by far the preferred way to hold data. Databases allow a wide range of users and applications to use the data flexibly and to update it. Each user can be given a unique, personalised and relevant view of the data which they can easily search and manipulate.
The increasing reliance on computers by all levels within a company requires careful design of the information technology (IT) infrastructure. IT usually refers to the hardware: computers, connections, disk storage.