information systems research: describe, critique or design?

I sometimes find it hard to see the practical value of some IS research. Researchers argue for a well-supported theoretical angle, come up with a pragmatic method and may present interesting observations and insights into the particular system that has been investigated. When it comes to design recommendations arising from the research, however, these often seem trite or added as an afterthought.

If theory and research are meant to inform practice, recommendations need to be current, relevant, and actionable. This can be hard to achieve in a domain that develops so quickly. Checkland (1998) observed a while ago how it is very hard for theory to keep up and be informative, thereby failing to match the “ideal” dynamic:

Checkland's 'ideal' dynamic for theory informing practice

Checkland's ideal for theory informing practice

Whilst a range of research-theoretical stances can be taken, justified and accepted by the research community, only some seem to be close enough to practice to usefully inform it. This is where the researchers are either experimenting directly through design, or are involved enough to really engage with the language, problems and possible solutions in the domain. So I would favour interpretive or action research approaches in this regard:

Levels of engagement and theoretical stance (based on Aakhus & Jackson (2005))

Levels of engagement and theoretical stance (based on Aakhus & Jackson (2005))

Whilst the more descriptive, long view can still be valuable, it is hard to realise this value unless the knowledge gained is acted on by those implementing new designs and approaches. As they are the ones reading the research, this should perhaps be the research community itself in the first instance. Design improvement can then be further communicated through demonstrators, but these need to be compelling enough to be taken seriously.


1. Aakhus, M. and Jackson, S., 2005. Technology, Interaction and Design. In: Fitch, K.L. and Sanders, R.E.( eds) Handbook of Language and Social Interaction. LEA, pp. 411-433
2. Checkland, P .and Holwell ,S. 1998. Information, Systems and Information Systems: Making Sense of the Field John Wiley & Sons, Inc. New York, NY, USA

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