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Academic vs. Practitioner Systems Planning and Analysis

The gap between academic and practitioner research focus and time perspectives inhibits the education and training of systems analysts and undermines systems planning and performance.
  1. Introduction
  2. Tomorrow's IT Work Force
  3. Academic and Commercial Thinking
  4. References
  5. Authors
  6. Footnotes
  7. Figures

Our comprehensive study of systems planning and analysis research over the 30-year period 1970–2000 investigated the generally recognized disconnect between the research focus of both academics and practitioners as it relates to IT analysis, planning, and implementation activities. We found that academics take a longer-term view than practitioners and tend to do research aimed at the prevention of errors. Practitioners take a shorter-term view, emphasizing the completion of tasks and solution of specific problems. Our findings suggest that integrating academic and practitioner efforts, attitudes, and incentives can help minimize the historical disconnect between theory and practice.

All kinds of organizations in the U.S. must deal with a disconnect between the essential skill sets they require and the experience U.S. IT workers gain through their education and training [1]. This incongruity has resulted in numerous systems problems, including visible and invisible application backlogs, development errors, neglected or missed deadlines, and excessive project costs. Together, they represent a significant impediment to the competitive performance of U.S. businesses already struggling to make sense of disconnects between worker skill sets and organizational requirements.

The IDC consulting firm predicted that the value of the U.S software development market would increase to more than $6.6 billion in 2004 [3], part of an overall growth rate in excess of 60% from 1999 to 2010. In today’s increasingly global and competitive business environment, systems planning and analysis must be integral aspects of organizational practices.

The U.S. Department of Commerce reported in 1998 that it expects a 103% increase in demand for systems analysts in the U.S. by 2006, but U.S. corporations will be able to meet only 50% of their need for them [3]. The risk of such a shortfall is that organizations will have to settle for underqualified employees. Today, the pipeline for skilled workers typically comes from academic institutions employing IS and computer science curricula.

We obtained journal abstracts from online and paper database sources of 13 professional journals from 1970 to 2002,1 including a total of 533 articles—269 academic and 264 practitioner. In addition, we segmented the sample into two time periods—before 1990 and after 1990—paralleling the changing business environment of the 1990s, as end-user computing became a mass-market phenomenon and the global Internet-based IT environment emerged.2 This shift in IT business activity served as the basis for comparing research activity across the two time periods and types of journals. Research activities included: methodologies, tools, techniques, requirements, system specifications, culture, planning, systems analysts, and curricula.

Figure 1 compares pre-1990 and post-1990 research activity for both academics and practitioners. Practitioners put greater emphasis on methodological research than academics did during both periods. Methodological research was the second most common area of focus for practitioners before 1990, second only to identifying and understanding the skills systems analysts need to succeed in business. Practitioners conducted more tools research than did academics before 1990, particularly when it concerned computer-aided software engineering (CASE) tools.

Practitioners studied techniques (such as the Unified Modeling Language, Entity-Relationship Diagrams, and Data Flow Diagrams) more than academics during both time periods. Requirements were investigated as much by academics as by practitioners, while practitioners studied systems specifications slightly more than academics. Planning received more attention from academic researchers, while practitioners concentrated more on action-based and outcome-related studies. Practitioners paid little attention to the planning of systems development projects, while academics emphasized planning during both time periods.

From about 1977 to 1990, practitioners focused on the skills systems analysts would need to be effective in the workplace. However, more recently, the amount of academic research regarding the skills needed by systems analysts has outpaced that of their practitioner counterparts. The study showed this same shift in focus was viewed as related to curriculum and teaching issues. Before 1990, academic researchers did not emphasize research to support curriculum development, as reflected in the content of the journals we used in the study.

Figure 1 compares post-1990 research activity for academics and practitioners. Practitioners invested twice as much time as academics investigating such methodologies as prototyping and object-oriented methodologies. From 1990 to 2000, practitioners conducted more research than academics in tools (such as CASE tools). Academics and practitioners invested equal effort investigating techniques, while academics invested more investigating requirements. Meanwhile, academics investigated systems specifications slightly more than their practitioner counterparts.

The notion of culture and its influence on the systems development process has always attracted only minimal attention in both academic and practitioner research. Planning has always received the most attention from academic researchers. In particular, they have focused on IS planning as it relates to business planning and the integration of IS planning processes, success measures of planning, and planning frameworks. Academic research from 1990 to 2002 paid more attention to the role of the systems analyst and its necessary skill sets, as well as to issues related to that role within the organization and the factors associated with working in groups. From 1990 to 2000, academics focused slightly more on curricula issues than did their practitioner counterparts.

Figure 2 outlines the relationships between academic and practitioner research across all the identified research streams and time periods in the study, yielding several interesting observations. Practitioner research before 1990 centered on techniques, systems analyst issues, system specifications, and curriculum issues. More recently, practitioner research has shifted toward tools and methodology. Academics, on the other hand, have shown no dramatic shift in research focus between the two time periods, staying with requirements, planning, and cultural issues.

The gap between academic and practitioner research interests was generally the same during the two time periods, with no apparent convergence.

A number of predictable and serendipitous conclusions emerged from the study. The most notable was that academics and practitioners emphasized different research streams. Academics took and still take a longer-term view and tend to do research supporting the prevention of errors, focusing on conceptual notions (such as planning). Practitioners emphasized action-based activities (such as tools and methodologies), each aimed at completing tasks or solving specific, immediate problems or errors. They conducted limited planning research, in contrast, to the longer-term academic orientation.

We did, however, find somewhat surprising differences between the two time periods. The quantity of research increased in a curvilinear fashion over time for both groups. The importance of university curricula and programs increased after 1990. We found the segmentation point of 1990 to be useful because it enabled us to identify current, as well as historical, research trends; for example, organizational needs and requirements research attracted more interest over time.

Surprisingly, neither academics nor practitioners made any effort to research either culture or context in their systems planning and analysis. Perhaps they view these issues as peripheral to systems planning and analysis. Perhaps they are embedded within other issues or are more salient in research topics beyond systems planning and analysis.

We identified research streams with limited or minimal focus, thus helping academics direct their attention to culture and context in systems planning and analysis. The study’s classification of research activity showed where a synergistic research agenda could be developed to benefit practitioners and academics alike. It would also help university faculty establish frameworks aimed at explaining practitioner-oriented issues.

Practitioners paid little attention to the planning of systems development projects, while academics emphasized planning during both time periods.

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Tomorrow’s IT Work Force

IS curricula are intended to prepare students to enter the work force. Identifying relevant issues would notably improve the updating and modification of IS curricula to best match the needs of businesses. For example, in September 2002, Marlboro College in Brattleboro, VT, launched a master’s program in systems integration management. Viewing systems development from an integrated perspective, the program included courses in project management, business systems analysis, and legal and ethical issues, along with standard technical topics. The overall aim was to graduate students prepared to handle systems analysis tasks in the workplace.

The disconnect between university offerings and organizational necessities is illustrated by the gap between academic and practitioner research interests as revealed in the study. Knowing this, universities and commercial organizations alike should be better able to tailor their curricula to fill the critical shortfall of expertise. Many systems-oriented programs in university IS departments are design-oriented and lack several important components: integration of project management; the skills needed to function as a systems analyst; an understanding of the basic principles of human dynamics; and managerial issues within the technical environment.

Surprisingly, neither academics nor practitioners made any effort to research either culture or context in their systems planning and analysis.

Unfortunately, practitioner research has focused on process and task accomplishment issues (such as tools, techniques, and design options). However, in today’s business environment, where financial resources and human resources are routinely limited, the need for properly planned and managed systems is critical. The overemphasis on maintenance (80% of systems development budgets go for systems maintenance [6]) inspires a fix-it mentality rather than a more worthwhile plan-it mentality.

The practitioner research we examined supports this notion. Organizations would save human, financial, and computer resources if they emphasized planning elements in their systems development processes. Wasted resources can be classified as a systems failure when the overall costs of systems development are weighed against the expected potential benefits of the systems being developed.

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Academic and Commercial Thinking

We found that academics and practitioners tend to emphasize different dimensions of systems planning and analysis. Teaming field practitioners, researchers, and faculty in teaching systems planning and analysis would thus simultaneously advance the integration of theory and practice. Students could work on organizationally relevant projects and receive feedback and critical analysis about their work from both theoretical and practical perspectives. Practitioners and academics could establish curricula and coordinate employment prospects for undergraduate and graduate students. Partnerships between organizations and universities, in the form of centers of joint knowledge creation and dissemination, would help establish a knowledge base and repository both entities could use.

The role of the systems analyst has changed over the years as organizational constraints and more complex project requirements have developed. Historical programming activities required less social and interpersonal skills than they do today. Today’s systems analyst functions as the liaison between management and the technical staff. The systems analyst within the current business structure requires technical know-how, interpersonal sophistication, managerial acumen, analytic elegance, and project-management ability. Since the role is evolving, further research to refine appropriate characteristics and functions is warranted.

The study also reflected inherent limitations, despite our best efforts to guard against research errors. One limitation centered on the use of practitioner journals as a surrogate for organizational practice. Although the mission of the journals emphasized practitioner activities, they did not completely replicate organizational practices. Another was our decision to limit the scope to the top IS journals, possibly skewing the study’s findings.

Directions for future research should include the development of processes and procedures integrating academic and practitioner research. The study could also be replicated using a different sample of journal and magazine articles. Given the current business environment, the effect of organizational culture on systems analysis should also be investigated. Lastly, academics and practitioners must increase their collaboration, building on one another’s skills to synergistically meet everyone’s needs.

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F1 Figure 1. Pre-1990 and post-1990 practitioner and academic research activity.

F2 Figure 2. Practitioner and academic research activity during both time periods.

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    1. Hoffer, J., George, J., and Volocich, J. Modern Systems Analysis and Design, 3rd Ed. Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ, 2002.

    2. Miller, H. Viewpoint. Information Technology Association of America, Arlington, VA, Jan. 2000;

    3. Mylonopoulos, N. and Theoharakis, V. Global perceptions of IS journals: Where is the best IS research published? Commun. ACM 44, 9 (Sept. 2001), 29–33.

    4. Scheier, R. Finding pearls in an ocean of data. Computerworld 35, 30 (July 23, 2001), 48–49.

    5. Tapscott, D. and Caston, A. Paradigm Shift: The New Promise of Information Technology. McGraw-Hill, New York, 1993.

    6. U.S. Department of Commerce, Office of Technology Policy. America's New Deficit. Washington, D.C., Jan. 1998;

    1We selected these journals (10 academic, three practitioner) based on the analysis in [2], which ranked the top IS journals. Journals classified as practitioner involved a readership primarily of business professionals or industry leaders; academic journals involved a predominantly theoretical audience.

    2This segmentation is based on the assertion that the IT discipline can reasonably be delineated into these two time periods [4].

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