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IFIP WG8.1 Working Conference

Organizational Semiotics: evolving a science of information systems

23-25 July 2001, Montreal

The Origin of the Conference

The aim of IFIP WG 8.1 is: "The planning, analysis, design and evaluation of information systems for organisations." Many people, not currently involved with IFIP, are working with exactly this aim using ideas that have, so far, played only a limited role in the work of WG 8.1. The Group invites them, in the spirit of its constitution, to contribute their perspectives to the evolving science of information systems. The domain of semiotics broadly encompasses the work of many of those scientists.

Since 1995, international workshops on semiotics applied to computing, organizational and information sciences have been held in The Netherlands, Germany, France and Canada. Many of the participants had no connection with IFIP WG8.1 although they shared the same quest for scientific rigor and formal precision in the study of information systems. Then, among the contributions to the WG8.1 working conference "Information Systems Concepts" in Leiden in 1999, were several that employed the approach of organizational semiotics. So it was decided by the Working Group to hold a conference in 2001in order to introduce this theme into its programme.

Organizational Semiotics has great potential for the information systems community. This conference will provide researchers and practitioners with an opportunity to discuss their theories, methods and practices from new angles. In particular, it provides a framework that accommodates both the technical and social aspects of information systems. In that respect, it opens a bridge between two communities that have difficulty collaborating. The technical community has the benefit of formal methods that are ill-suited for dealing with social issues, while the social science methods lack the precision for dealing with computing problems. We must look for a conceptual framework that can accommodate both.

A Note on the Theme

Organizational semiotics introduces new perspectives on information systems in at least two ways. While still concerned with computer applications embedded in organizations, it regards organizations as the real information systems in which technologies have an essential role to play as the stage on which the human drama of the organization is acted out. So this approach keeps both technical and human issues in focus. As a sign is anything that stands for something else, within a certain community , it deals with 'information' as a core concept, including the intrinsically human aspects of signs: their meanings, intentions and their business and social consequences.

Semiotics or the 'doctrine of signs' originated in Ancient Greece. It is interesting to note that, a hundred years ago, its greatest modern practitioner, CS Peirce, originated many concepts central to information systems today, including relational algebra, in the database field, and a powerful form of conceptual graphs in AI. Its rich tradition of rigorous and precise analysis of information and communication makes semiotics an essential source of ideas for the information systems community. This is now recognized by many universities now running courses on semiotics for information systems studies and by many PhD students working in this area.

The practical importance of this theme is emphasized by reports, in 2000, from OECD and from US Dept. of Commerce revealing that IT services and products bring poor productivity returns to their consumers compared with the 'killing' is made by their suppliers. It appears that IT must come with improved organization to deliver its benefits. Organizational semiotics, treating the organization as "getting things done by using information (signs)", suggests new, precise ways to model business activities. These can improve our requirements engineering practice and have already produced methods that cut the lifetime costs of computer applications. Partly this is achieved by finding for our taken-for-granted terms, 'information', 'meaning', 'communication', 'relevance' etc precise meanings for the organizational domain, by treating them as properties of signs . Clarity, empirical grounding and formality (where possible and appropriate) should enable us to improve the fit between business systems and their computer applications and release their value.

IFIP WG 8.1 has a reputation for clarity and logical precision, which it is our intention to maintain as ideas from semiotics are introduced. However, many relevant, organizational semiotic concepts remain to be fully explicated before mathematical or logical tools can be applied to them. WG 8.1 is not interested in formality for its own sake, but it will insist on sound scientific method, and its best traditions of open-minded, tolerant yet searchingly critical discussion.

Semiotics is not so much a discipline as a vast field as broad as, say, the natural sciences. This conference, therefore, will bring together a great diversity of views. That's what has made the earlier meetings so stimulating, exciting and refreshing.