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PRISM/BEST-Michigan
     

IMPLEMENTING AN MIS

The implementation of a management information system can be a traumatic experience. At a minimum, changes in procedures will impact the ways in which plans are made, programs are developed, and performance is evaluated within the organization. New patterns of communications will emerge, and new - presumably better - information will be available to assist in carrying out decision-making and administrative responsibilities. Efforts to improve the MIS may also uncover the need for organizational changes which may be even more unsettling than the procedural changes necessary to implement the system. The introduction of a MIS may represent substantial change in the established way of doing business, which can be viewed with considerable alarm (and generate significant resistance) by those within the organization.

Anthony and Herzlinger have suggested that "the driving force behind a new system must come from top management, . . . it is unlikely that a majority of operating managers will voluntarily embrace a new system in advance of its installation, let alone be enthusiastic advocates of it." [1] The support of top management means more than mere acquiescence to the system as a "necessary evil." Responsible managers in the organization must be willing to devote sufficient time and effort to fully understand the general concepts and objectives of the management information system. They must explain to principal subordinates how these proce-dures will help them and the organization as a whole. If problems arise during the design and implementation of these procedures, top management must listen to opposing viewpoints and then make decisions to resolve such problems and remove any impediments. The organization's leadership may also have to "do battle" with outside interest groups, which might otherwise seek to prevent the adoption of such systems. It often is tempting to fall back on the old saw: "We have no choice but to implement these procedures to meet externally imposed requirements." In so doing, however, the basis has been laid for less-than-enthusiastic support (and perhaps organized resistance) from within the organization.

Top management must set the example in terms of the system design effort by the willingness to take time away from other pressing problems to clearly articulate goals and objectives and to discuss management information needs and expectations. Top management's participation in these efforts will help to convince personnel at the various operating levels to devote the necessary and appropriate time and effort to the task.

 

Advocates of MIS "should understand that the installation of a new system is a political process. It involves pressure, persuasion, and compromise in proper proportions as in the case with any important political action." [2] Operating managers will be more likely to support the system if they are convinced that, on balance, it will benefit them in carrying out their assigned responsibilities. The new system should provide operating managers with better information about the activities and performance of those staff members for whom they are responsible. With this information, the operating managers should have a better basis for direct and controlling the efforts of subordinates. On the other hand, uncertainty about the manager's performance is also likely to be reduced, and depending on personal interpretations of how such information will be received by "higher ups," an operating manager may resist the system.

The preparation of manuals of procedures and other explanatory materials is a necessary part of the educational process. These materials are not the most important part of the process, however. Management at all levels within the organization must be convinced that the new system, in fact, is going to be used and that it will help them do a better job. The best way to "pass the word" is to have managers teach managers--that is, top management should discuss the new system with subordinates, who then carry the message to their subordinates, and so on. Since the teachers must themselves become more fully indoctrinated, this process aids in the education of all those involved.

The president of a major northeastern university, for example, initiated a new management information system by installing computer terminals in the offices of all the vice presidents, substituting electronic mail messages for the more traditional written memoranda. The vice presidents quickly adapted to this system (as a matter of survival) and began communicating with academic deans and other administrators through the same process. Once a system goes into operations, even on a trial basis, the use of the management information that it generates is the best educational device available.

It may not be feasible to install a management information system across the whole organization all at one time. Initial efforts may be concentrated on those segments of the organization where the results of such improvement will be most visible. Demonstrated success in one area often can lead to more general acceptance of the system throughout the organization.

It is difficult to be specific about an appropriate period required to successfully design and implement a management information system. In a large, complex organization, two to three years may elapse from the time the decision is made to initiate systems development and the date that the system is fully implemented. The time available is never quite enough. There always will be worthwhile refinements that could be made. However, if enough time were allowed for all the fine-tuning efforts, the system might never go into operation.

 

It is important not to oversell the potential of the new system. Aaron Wildavsky offers a number of "rules" that are applicable to the implementation of any new management system. [3] The rule of skepticism suggests that organizational officials should exercise a good deal of skepticism when presented with the initial concept of an improved management system. The rule of delay cautions officials to give the system adequate time to develop and to be prepared to face periodic setbacks in its implementation. As Wildavsky observes: "if it works at all, it won't work soon." The rule of anticipated anguish is essentially a restatement of Murphy's Law--"most of the things that can go wrong, will." Wildavsky suggests that management must be prepared to invest personnel, time, and money to overcome breakdowns in the system as they occur. And the rule of discounting suggests that anticipated benefits to be derived from the new management information system should significantly outweigh the estimated costs of mounting the system. Much of the cost must be incurred before the benefits are achieved. Therefore, the tendency is to inflate future benefits--to oversell the system--to compensate for the increased commitment of present resources.

Even with the best management information system, data must still be analyzed and interpreted by managers. And based on this information, judgment must be exercised in decision making. Allowance must be made for the inadequacies or unavailability of data. Although the system can provide certain decision parameters, it cannot make decisions. Managers must continue to exercise judgment regarding the exceptions that prove the rules. Such caveats must be emphasized during the educational processes. Otherwise, managers are aware of such limitations will regard the whole effort as the work of impractical theorists.

Around the turn of the century, Clerk Maxwell, an English physicist, suggested a very clever way to overcome the second law of thermo-dynamics. Maxwell envisioned a small, but very intelligent creature--a demon--who could see molecules and could serve as a "gatekeeper" between two containers of gas at equal temperature and pressure. By carefully opening and closing the gate, the demon could permit faster-moving molecules to pass into one container, while slower molecules remained in the other. Over time, one container would get hotter and the other cooler. The available energy in the system, as measured by the temperature differential between the two containers, would be increased without adding any new energy to the system (other than Maxwell's smart demon). Thus, the second law of thermodynamics would be circumvented.

Maxwell's demon, of course, is an allegory for anything that contributes organization to a disorganized or chaotic situation. In this context, the term "demon" refers to a positive genius, designed to address a host of problems within an organization. The objective is to reduce management costs as a percentage of total organizational costs and to satisfy the "increasingly voracious appetite for decision-influencing management information. . . ." [4] On the other hand, Maxwell's demon can become a resource-demanding devil--an organizational black hole that can absorb considerable energy with little apparent payoff. The careful design and implementation of a management information system can contribute significantly toward the demon-genius--or at least can help avoid the demon-devil.

Endnotes [1]Robert N. Anthony and Regina Herzlinger, Management Control in Non-Profit Organizations (Homewood, Ill.: Richard D. Irwin, 1975), p. 316. [2]Ibid., p. 323.[3]Aaron Wildavsky, "Review of Politicians, Bureaucrats and the Consultant," in Science 28 (December 1973), pp. 1335-1338.[3]Robert C. Heterick, "Administrative Support Services," Cause/Effect 4 (November 1981), p. 29 .