Decision Support Systems And The Professional

Today I presented for the INFS332 class for Dr Sophie Cockcroft of the University of Queensland as a guest lecturer.  The class has been discussing decision support systems and how fantastic they all are; my role was to temper that enthusiasm a bit with a bit of balance, particularly with my work around the theory of technology dominance.

My presentation is given below:

The first of three types of ambiguity: potential ambiguity

Again, this is lifted from my thesis which looks unlikely to ever see the light of day unless I take it off the shelves in BEL library at UQ.

Potential ambiguity arises when a term or a sentence is ambiguous in and of itself, for example, before its use in the context of a sentence or paragraph.  Three types of ambiguity are categorised as potential ambiguity:  lexical, syntactical, and inflective. 

Lexical Ambiguity

Lexical ambiguity is the most commonly known form of ambiguity (Reilly 1991; Walton 1996).  It occurs when words have more than one meaning as commonly defined and understood.  Considerable potential ambiguity arises when a word with various meanings is used in a statement of information request.  For example, "bank" may variously mean the "bank" of a river (noun), to "bank" as related to aeroplane or a roller-coaster (verb), a savings "bank" (noun), to "bank" money (verb), or a "bank" of computer terminals (noun) (Turner 1987).  Lexical ambiguity is often reduced or mitigated by the context of the sentence. 

In the case of an information request, lexical ambiguity exists in the statement "A report of our clients for our marketing brochure mail-out".  The word "report" may have several meanings, independent of its context.  A gunshot report may echo across the hillside.  A student can report to the lecturer.  A heavy report can be dropped on the foot.  Although the context may make the meaning clear, the lexical ambiguity contributes to the overall ambiguity of the statement and increases cognitive effort. 

Syntactical Ambiguity

Syntactical ambiguity is a structural or grammatical ambiguity of a whole sentence that occurs in a sub-part of a sentence (Reilly 1991; Walton 1996).  Syntactical ambiguity is a grammatical construct, and results from the difficulty of applying universal grammatical laws to sentence structure.  An example of syntactical ambiguity is "Bob hit the man with the stick".  This phrasing is unclear as to whether a man was hit with a stick, or whether a man with a stick was struck by Bob.  The context can substantially reduce syntactical ambiguity.  For example, knowing that either Bob, or the man, but not both, had a stick resolves the syntactical ambiguity. 

Comparing the phrase "Bob hit the man with the stick" to the analogous "Bob hit the man with the scar" provides some insights.  As a scar is little suited to physical, violent use, the latter formulation clearly conveys that the man with the scar was struck by Bob (Kooij 1971).

In the case of an information request, syntactical ambiguity exists in the request "A report of poor-paying clients and client managers.  Determine their effect on our profitability for the last twelve months."  The request is syntactically ambiguous because the end user can interpret "their" to mean the poor paying clients, the client managers, or both.  Although the context may reduce or negate the ambiguity, syntactically the request is ambiguous.

Inflective Ambiguity

As Walton (1996) notes, inflective ambiguity is a composite ambiguity, containing elements of both lexical and syntactical ambiguity.  Like syntactical ambiguity, inflective ambiguity is grammatical in nature.  Inflection arises where a word is used more than once in a sentence or paragraph, but with different meanings each time (Walton 1996).  An example of inflective ambiguity is to use the word "scheme" with two different meanings in the fallacious argument, "Bob has devised a scheme to save costs by recycling paper.  Therefore, Bob is a schemer, and should not be trusted" (Ryle 1971; Walton 1996).  

In the case of an information request, inflective ambiguity exists in the example, "A report showing the product of our marketing campaign for our accounting software product".  Ambiguity derives from using the word "product" in two different senses in the one statement (Walton 1996; Fowler and Aaron 1998). 

Technorati Tags:

Image from Flickr User baralbionSome Rights Reserved.

Answering assignments at a University Undergraduate level

Anyone who has been following my twitter lately will have come to the realisation that one of the things I have been doing for fun and profit lately is lecturing in IT Governance at Queensland University of Technology.

I have to say, as for the fun and profit side of things, I don’t think I can recommend it as a hobby for anyone J. Although you probably already knew that.

I have just finished marking the assignments, and what has struck me is the apparent difficulty that exists for students answering an assignment, so I thought I’d do a bit of a pointer overview for anyone who ever intends to submit an assignment to me in the future. With any luck, I’ll expand this blog post into something more by the time I get to lecture again in the subject next year.

Honestly, I think I will spend an hour in one lecture just going through this overview so that assignments (and by extension, exams) are answered well.

The following pointers are relevant as far as I am concerned if you are ever intending to provide an assignment that gets an above-average to good grade. If you follow these pointers you should at least pass the subject.

Listen to the lecturer

The lecturer wants you to do well. Certainly, I at least know that I’d rather mark good assignments than bad ones. So, attend lectures and listen when subtle (and not so subtle) hints are made regarding the assignment.

Phrases like ‘be sure to read the question’, and ‘only answer the question’ come to mind. Other magic phrases come to mind like ‘This would make a good assignment question’, and ‘Be sure to know what a <insert special word here> is’.

And turn up to lectures and asking questions is a sure way to get an insight into what the lecturer is on about. Not everything can be in the Powerpoint.

Know the marking scheme

Understand the marking scheme, and write so that you address it. For instance, with this most recent assignment, 40% of the total marks were for knowledge, 40% were for analysis, and 20% were for research and communication.

So every answer you give has to address this marking criteria.

Just so you know, Googling and copy-and-paste don’t count much as knowledge unless you’re taking a cut-and-paste class. To me, to demonstrate knowledge you have to provide some facts that answer the question, certainly, but it needs to be your own words (and back it up with research where you need to).

To demonstrate your powers of analysis, you have to answer the question ‘why’? It isn’t good enough to say, ‘do X’, or ‘this applies’ – answer the question why do it, or why does it apply? If your answer doesn’t demonstrate at least some reasoning, you’re going to be missing out on the question. This applies unless the question explicitly states you don’t need to follow the marking scheme for that question.

To demonstrate research and communication, you would firstly be expected to show that you have done some independent research. At an undergraduate level, this probably doesn’t need to be a lot, and in fact it is probably going to be ‘bad’ research. But with things like Proquest around these days there’s really no excuse not to find an article somewhere that demonstrates your point of view. Secondly, you need to write your answer in language that is grammatically acceptable. I know this is tough if English isn’t your first language, but it seems to be tough for non-native speakers as well. To me, to get the answer right, your answers need to be grammatically correct (at an undergraduate level, by grammatically correct I mean tense that is consistent, sentences that are full sentences with a subject, verb, noun, clauses, full stops – that sort of thing).

To me, given the state of the world today you don’t really need to worry too much about using active or passive voice, or even writing great prose (and to be honest, great prose is probably a communication hindrance). Good spelling is a must, but I personally wouldn’t start to ping you until I’d seen a couple of spelling errors every two or three hundred words. Beyond two it’s getting far too sloppy. Think about it – a 5-page report will be about 1,250 words – one typo every 100 words is 13 or so typos in that single assignment. I can live with that, but I can’t give you top marks.

Recall too that paragraphs are your friends, as are dot point lists. If it’s a full assignment, I suspect most lecturers won’t accept dot point answers, but if a dot point list answers the question clearly and easily, use a dot point list after an an introductory paragraph to get the facts out, and then put your analysis in paragraphs.

Format and technical issues

If you have a word limit, stick to it (at least within coo-ee of the word limit, please – more than 10% over the limit is probably going to be a problem for you, not me). To make your case about how you stuck to the word limit, I’d put the word count at the beginning of the assignment, smack dab on the front page.

Have a cover page, headers and footers, and, if your assignment has an appendix, a table of contents is appropriate as well. It will depend on the marking scheme as to whether this affects your mark, but in professional life as well as academic life the ‘duck theory’ applies: if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and sounds like a duck, it’s a duck. Make sure the assignment looks the part.

Be sure to give the assignment a good re-read prior to submission to check for spelling errors, word usage, and complete sentences. This means finishing the assignment 48 hours beforehand, letting it sit, and then re-reading it so you’re not so close to the assignment.

Oh, and make sure that little things like page order are done properly, and don’t forget to add your appendices in!

Read the Question

You need to be sure that your answer is actually answering the question that has been asked. This is particularly important when you have a restrictive word limit. Don’t spend a great deal of time defining a term when the question did not ask you to. This can demonstrate knowledge, but will never address analysis and evaluation capabilities, particularly when the definition is virtually copied and pasted.

Be careful that you don’t give the right answer for the wrong question. You can give a good answer, but if it does not answer the question actually asked you will do poorly.

Be certain that your answer addresses the requirements of the question. In answering a question, focus on the verbs that request you, as the student, to do something. Consider the following question:

1. Outline the importance of IT governance to Australian business organisations by accessing current IT governance research. Assess the overall IT governance of Mudflat Plains City Council and provide recommendations regarding steps the organisation could take to improve its IT governance processes.

To do well, the answer had to use words like ‘IT Governance is important because <insert reason>’. Research should be cited too in making this answer (given that the question asked you to do this by ‘accessing current IT Governance research’).

An assessment needed to be provided of IT Governance (e.g. ‘In my assessment IT Governance at MPCC is level 2 in accordance with the maturity model because <list some reasons why>’. Finally the answer needed to provide reasonable steps that could be taken to improve MPCC’s IT Governance processes.

Defining IT Governance is vaguely useful to the answer, but not much, and is not worth spending a great deal of time on as it is not requested in the answer.

I really hope that this helps some students with preparing an assignment at a University level.  I can see that next year I am going to devote a chunk of time to preparing an assignment.

Doing my PhD

Well for a long time I’ve been fascinated by business – did my Commerce degree at UQ in 1991 – I tortured myself a fair bit by deciding to do the Honours course.  Which was nothing like I thought it would be, and was certainly the hardest year of my life (so far) work-wise. 

Graduating in 1991 was not a good time.  Today, you graduate, you get paid $40,000 minimum, and the accounting firms fall over themselves to have you work for them for 2 years before you do the London thing.  In 1991, it was quite the other way around. So I didn’t work for an accounting firm.  Or a bank.  Who, in their wisdom, had decided the world actually really didn’t need accountants.  They were protecting their profits, but probably didn’t do too much for the profession. 

I worked in private schools for 5 years before realising that I probably didn’t want to stay in the same role for another fifteen years (advice I actually received – I was ‘too young’ to be promoted any more 🙂 – try that on today!).  So I went looking somewhere where being 27 was not considered a career choice!

I did my Masters in Information Systems in 1996 (finishing in 2000), again at UQ.  I became a CPA in 1997.  That opened up the door to consulting in business systems with both Horwath and then BDO Kendalls when Horwath merged into BDO Kendalls locally.  I joined the ITM CoE in 1998, and became its chair in 2002 after Tony Hayes moved on. 

I mostly loved BDO Kendalls as a firm – of course, we had our moments, but I was there for ten years so something must have been OK.  It’s a great accounting firm, with very talented and hardworking people.  Unfortunately due to family commitments and the need for long hours, I couldn’t stay there forever so it was best I leave and strike out on my own.  That has mostly worked well, although again that’s had its moments.  It’s reaffirmed my understanding of the need for cashflow in a small business in its growth phase, particularly during that all-important startup period!

Where’s this going?

Well, as part of my new-found life, which still very much involves consulting, but not trying to juggle family responsibilities and a national firm, I’ve done a little bit of lecturing from time to time (mostly QUT).  Which has been interesting and has lead to other things.  When I left, though, the plan was to work as a part-time lecturer as a sort of base job. 

I’ve since discovered that, in reality, to do that you mostly need to either have a PhD or be doing one.  I also found out the pay-rates for academics – even in IS, academics are paid less than the tealady in a commercial firm.  When a web-designer with four years experience commands a $70K package, and an associate lecturer gets $54K, there’s an economic imperative at work.

Fortunately I’m not entirely motivated by money – I like to do new things, interesting things, relevant things. Searching out mobile phone plans for clients is not necessarily my cup of tea (not one of my banner-moments in the past!).  Im a tad more ‘big-picture’ than that.  So I approached UQ about doing my PhD, and they just happen to have a scholarship going for a PhD student to review the impact of IFRS (International Financial Reporting Standards) on IT audit methodologies (see here, at the top of Page 54).  It’s almost exactly what I’m interested in, involves working with the auditors-general around the country, and it’s important (that’s why it’s one of those rare things, a PhD with funding – not a lot of funding really, for what is needed, but funding nonetheless). 

Peter tells me he’s after someone ‘mature’ to do the work – so maybe I’ve shaken off those baby-faced looks from when I was too young be promoted :).  Had to happen eventually I guess.

Personally it suits me to part-time consult and work on this topic.  It’s not quite exactly what I’m interested in, but half the work of a PhD is coming up with a topic, and here it is laid out for me on a platter, with funding and research subjects on the side.  So – I’ve said I’m up for doing it

So – I’m told an office is involved, and that I’ll have to be at UQ a fair amount of the time, but that is fairly flexible and it’s really about outcomes. The picture below is of the building at UQ where I’ll be spending most of my time.  I’ll have to buy myself some suspenders and jeans now that I’m working in academia.  There is a coffee shop and it’s a wonderful location (parking is kind of poor but we’ll deal with that and how bad could it possibly be (gak! famous last words!).

For any clients reading this, please note that I’ll still be available for consulting work – for most clients, pretty much on the same basis as before.  You won’t notice the difference, I promise, and in the meantime I get to work with some great people on a big-picture topic area of interest.  In fact, it’s a topic that’s just crying out for consulting and linking with the business community.

Guess that’s why it’s a linkage grant then, huh.

Guest Lecturer – QUT International Business

I am somewhat passionate about the impact of information systems upon business, and so when I had the opportunity to address the international business and ebusiness subject at Queensland University of Technology (QUT) last week, I fair jumped at the chance.

I think that information systems are the very close bedfellows of business – a clear understanding of both is a key component to career success for most people in business.  So, the powerpoint ‘Career Issues in IS’ is attached (I also understand that QUT made a video of the Thursday night lecture, so I’m sure that’s available to any uni students who are sufficiently interested.

By way of postscript, I note that the students were far more polite than my university class would have been – no-one interrupted the presentation with snoring, for example.  In our day I would have been the recipient of several hundred badly-formed paper planes, I am sure (all those other GenX miscreants, I assure you)…