The Work System Method:
Connecting People, Processes, and IT for Business Results


Steven Alter is Professor of Information Systems at the University of San Francisco, and holds a B.S. in mathematics from MIT and a Ph.D. from MIT's Sloan School of Management. He extended his 1975 Ph.D. thesis into one of the first books on decision support systems. After teaching at the University of Southern California he served for eight years as co-founder and Vice President of Consilium, a manufacturing software firm that went public in 1989 and was acquired by Applied Materials in 1998. His many roles at Consilium included starting departments for customer service, training, documentation, technical support, and product management. Upon returning to academia, he wrote an information systems textbook whose fourth edition was published in 2002 with a new title, Information Systems: Foundation of E-business. His articles have appeared in Harvard Business Review, Sloan Management Review, MIS Quarterly, European Journal of Information Systems, Decision Support Systems, Interfaces, Communications of the ACM, Communications of the AIS, CIO Insight, Futures, The Futurist, and many conference transactions.

His interest in trying to boost the odds of IT success stemmed from previous experience in the manufacturing software firm Consilium, some of whose customers and staff might have benefited from an organized method for exploring the relationship between software features and work practices.

The importance of focusing on work systems became apparent after several years of using student papers on real world information systems to test successive versions of methods for thinking about systems from a business viewpoint. Around 1997 he suddenly realized that he, the professor, had been confused about what system the students should be analyzing. Business professionals (as exemplified by these employed MBA and EMBA students) thinking about information systems should not start by describing or analyzing the information system or the technology it uses. Instead, they should start by describing the work system and identifying its shortcomings, opportunities, and goals for improvement. Their analysis should focus on improving work system performance, not on fixing information systems. The necessary changes in the information system would emerge from the analysis, as would other work system changes unrelated to the information system but necessary before information system improvements could succeed.

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