Teaching Systems – Getting future IT entrepreneurs to see the full picture

Authors: Andrea Resmini and Bertil Carlsson

Information is going everywhere. It is bleeding out of the Internet and out of personal computers, and it is being embedded into the real world. Mobile devices, networked resources, and real-time systems are making our interactions with information constant and ubiquitous. Information is becoming pervasive, and products and services are becoming smaller parts of larger ecosystems, many of these emergent, complex information-based artifacts where participants are co-producers and where relationships between elements, channels and touchpoints are messy and non-linear. Still, within the area of informatics and information systems, we by and large teach management and design as if they were linear. Could we try something different? How would that work?

This paper details the approach we followed and the early results we achieved while introducing business and informatics students to entrepreneurship and innovation through a holistic approach in the 2-year Master in IT, Management and Innovation at Jönköping International Business School, Jönköping, Sweden.
Two different courses were refactored and tailored to offer, instead of a plain traditional approach to project management and innovation, a comprehensive overview of the complexity hidden behind the ideation, development and deployment of innovative information systems-based solutions, and the basis of a practice-oriented holistic methodology the students could use to approach these messy or wicked problems in their future roles as managers or designers.
While still conceived as independent learning moments because of constraints in the organizational layout of the program, both courses however adopted the same structure and offered students a view over the design of information systems through the lens of multiple competing, diverging perspectives: the business model and ethical point of view of free and open source software, usability and user experience, ubiquitous and pervasive computing, and security. These were tied together through an overarching systems thinking approach.
Instead of having the students focus on understanding one single point of view, often identifiable in the process / project management perspective, the courses aimed at creating an understanding of the elements at play and of their reciprocal relationships. Students were constantly led towards adopting a reflective, iterative process, and to embody their temporary conclusions in communication artifacts to be shared.
The courses were held in English and structured to provide the class of largely non-Swedish, non-European students with the basics of theory necessary to understand and formalize a systems thinking approach, and with practical hands-on group assignments. Groups were randomly assembled: first students had to figure out an internal structure, by choosing a project manager among themselves, and then they were presented with 5 larger areas of possible interventions connected to different aspects of the theoretical framework outlined in the courses, such as technologies for transportation systems, healthcare information systems, cross-border public services, multi-agent systems and social networks, educational solutions for children in primary school and ambient or pervasive systems.

Groups were required to identify a specific issue or problem space within an existing service ecosystem, and work their way through a definition of the boundaries of their intervention, a visual and diagrammatic representation of the customer journey, and a business model representing the current status via Osterwald and Pigneur’s business model canvas devised. They were then requested to transition these findings to a desirable future state by applying, among others, Gharajedaghi’s system mapping framework.

Emphasis was placed in clarifying how there could be no preordered right or wrong answers, but rather a varying degree of fittingness and utility depending on how they successfully (or unsuccessfully) set boundaries around their systems and managed to identify sufficiently specific research questions. Similarly, while basic deliverables (such as the business canvas, a final report, and a slide deck) where mandatory for all groups, and students were introduced to a number of different tools and methodologies including personas, customer journeys, service blueprints, no particular requests or restrictions were posed on the students as far as secondary deliverables were concerned, with the explicit goal of allowing each group to develop their own personal representation of their problem space.

At the end of the courses, groups were requested to present their work to the rest of the class in an allotted slot of twenty minutes, and to conduct a public critique aimed at reflecting on their project through the lenses of individual, organizational and societal indicators as they are commonly found in socio-economic evaluations. For each of these we asked the students to formulate how their proposed future states would affect each indicator in respect to the problem areas.

As these courses were implemented and deployed in a period of months, failings were considered an integral part of the process, and meetings were scheduled to evaluate the outcomes after completions. Major preliminary take-aways include:
The students founds the visual approach of some of the tools and methodologies adopted challenging. This at times resulted in increased pressure on the teachers and in generalized requests for step-by-step guidance: a brainstorming session for using the business model canvas became a painstakingly slow detailed explanation of every single action to be performed.

The examination process for courses of this type, where students are evaluated through a weighted combination of individual and group performances, has to be rebooted since the classical academic project report methods (e.g. IMRAD) do not provide a full picture of what the project parts were about and of the impact they have. And while a better and more suitable examination process is auspicable, conformity to the examination rules given by the Swedish regulatory body needs to be maintained.

The courses was perceived to offer no real boundaries, which implied that students were at loss as to what they would be judged upon. While this was intentional and deliberate, it made them feel insecure and was a major cause of delays and misunderstandings.
On the other hand, all post-mortem assessments concorded that the course offered a liberating hands-on approach that allowed students to create connections between their work in the class, and messy situations they are confronted with when dealing with real-life projects. Similarly, students appreciated the possibility to turn their intuitions into visual representations: they simply could not do it well. This could be solved by introducing targeted lectures combining the theoretical foundations of the different lenses or approaches with hands-on workshops where the students get to work with the tools and reflect on them while still having easy access to a lecturer whenever questions should arise.

Posted: Sep-2013

RSD 10 Call for Papers

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