Thursday, 15 March 2012

Constructing a web information system development methodology

Abstract. This paper reports on the extension of the Multiview framework to web-
based information systems. The aims are firstly to investigate the appropriateness
of Multiview – a pre-Internet analysis and design methodology – to web-based
information systems and, secondly, to reflect on the nature and role of method-
ology, as distinct from method, in the information systems (IS) development
process. A 2-year ecommerce development project in a small to medium enter-
prise is the setting for learning through action research. To distinguish the project
from consultancy, a framework of ideas – Multiview – is declared and tested in
the research process. The differences and similarities of pre-Internet and
Internet-based projects are analysed and reported on. At a higher order of learn-
ing the project provided an opportunity to reflect on how methodologies are con-
structed in practice.
Keywords: Information system development, Multiview, Internet, ecommerce development,
methodology, action research, web
Many of the new methodologies aimed at the development of web sites have focused on the
user interface (and in particular the look and feel), but have failed to address the wider aspects
of web-based information systems (Howcroft & Carroll, 2000). At the same time, traditional
pre-Internet information system (IS) methodologies have struggled to accommodate web-
specific aspects into their methods and work practices. A notable exception is Connallen
(2000), who has adapted the unified modelling language (UML) to web applications. Although
web sites can be characterized historically as graphically intense hypermedia systems, they
have now evolved from cyber-brochures into database-driven information systems that must
integrate with existing back office applications within the organization, and often need to
connect with trading partners and other stakeholders. Web-based IS therefore require a mix
of web site development techniques together with traditional IS development competencies,
such as database design and program design.
This paper reports on an action research project that spanned two years and involved the
building of an e-commerce application for a UK-based small to medium enterprise (SME)working in the food and drink industry. From a research viewpoint a ‘theory’, the Multiview
methodology (Avison & Wood-Harper, 1990; Avison et al., 1998), is being tested by its practical
application to the construction of a web-based IS. The methodology that emerged from the
application of Multiview in this context is a web IS development methodology (WISDM). The
learning outcomes sought through the action research are: (1) to understand the changes to
the content of pre-Internet methodologies needed to address the specifics of web-based IS;
(2) to consider the differences between web-based IS development and traditional IS develop-
ment; and (3) to reflect more generally on the role of methodology in IS development. To this
end, the paper is organized as follows. In next section, the research design and methodology
are introduced. In the third section, the framework of ideas to be tested, Multiview, is described,
and in the fourth section the client organization is introduced. The emergent content of the web
IS development methodology, WISDM, is described in the fifth section. In the sixth section, dif-
ferences between pre-Internet IS and the web-based IS are considered, together with reflec-
tions on the role of methodology in IS development. A summary is given in the last section.
Action research was used in order to learn about the actual and situated practice of web IS
development through first-hand experience. In making an intervention one seeks to avoid
the distorting lens of purely theoretical approaches to the study of IS development: the unat-
tainable ideals and hypothetical ‘straw men’ of utopian development in which the methodical
is privileged over the amethodical (Truex et al., 2000). The roots of action research can
be traced back to Lewin’s (1948) work on social change and social conflicts, through the
Tavistock Institute’s work on socio-technical theory (Emery & Trist, 1960), Checkland’s
(1981) view of human activity systems, to the Multiview methodology (Avison & Wood-Harper,
1990). Avison et al. (1999: 95) build on this tradition to argue that for academics to read about
systems development, write case studies, and even build their own methodologies, is not
In action research the researcher wants to try out a theory with practitioners in real situa-
tions, gain feedback from this experience, modify the theory as a result of this feedback,
and try it again. Each iteration of this action research process adds to the theory – in this
case a framework for systems development – so that it is more likely to be appropriate for
a variety of situations.
According to Checkland (1991), the definition of a framework of ideas is important if action
research is to be rigorous and have validity. It also helps to differentiate action research from
consultancy (Baskerville & Wood-Harper, 1996). The aim of the action research project
reported in this paper is to find out about web IS development using Multiview as a frame-
work of ideas to be tested through intervention. The client organization in which the frame-
work of ideas is tested is Zenith International, a company specializing in consultancy to the
food and drinks industry. More specifically, the area of application for the action research isthe Global Drinks Service (GDS) ecommerce website development project, which ran from October 1999 until
September 2001.
– M U LT I V I E W
Multiview originated as a response to traditional IS development methods that had strong roots
in engineering discipline and technical rationality. The extension of structured programming into
structured analysis and design was, perhaps, a logical progression that resulted in IS develop-
ment methods such as information engineering (Martin, 1989) and structured systems analy-
sis and design method (SSADM) (CCTA, 1990). The process of taking successful programming
strategies and broadening them out into design and analysis methods continued unabated with
the object-oriented (OO) paradigm, with OO programming being extended into OO analysis with
methods such as Rumbaugh et al.’s (1991) object modelling technique (OMT). A convergence
of ‘best of breed’ OO methods led to the unified modelling language (UML) notation (Booch
et al., 1999). Although there are certainly differences between the structured and OO para-
digms, the philosophical foundations are shared – a functionalist paradigm of objectivism and
social order (Hirschheim & Klein, 1989; Hirschheim et al., 1995). However, engineering-based
approaches to IS development can lead to an overemphasis on the design and construction of
computer-based artefacts, with insufficient attention given to the social and contextual aspects
of IS development. Hirschheim et al. (1996) take the view that the changes associated with
system development are emergent, historically contingent, socially situated and politically
loaded. As a consequence of this position they argue that sophisticated social theories are
needed to understand and make sense of IS development activity.
Multiview supports an even-handed approach to IS development, where a sociotechnical
solution is sought. Multiview is structured in three tiers: general framework, local methodol-
ogy and methods/techniques (collectively these constitute ‘Multiview’). The Multiview frame-
work (Figure 1) is used to inform the emergence of a situation-specific and local methodology;
at its best it is the result of a genuine engagement of the IS developers (change agents) with
the problem situation. This engagement, which is historically contingent and locally situated,
informs the choice of methods and techniques, such as object-oriented design and job satis-
faction design, that will be used to get things done. The IS development methods matrix (Figure
1) categorizes methods in two dimensions: socio (a concern with the organization and indi-
viduals) and technical (a concern with the ‘things’), and analysis (‘what’ is required) and design
(‘how’ it will be achieved). Engineering-based approaches to IS development concentrate on
the right-hand side of the matrix: the generation of a requirements specification and its refine-
ment into a software model, whether this process be stepwise, as in the waterfall lifecycle, or
iterative, as in rapid application development. The overtly social left-hand side is downplayed
and left to fend for itself, but is always present, whether the developer likes it or not.
In the Multiview framework the role of the IS developer is itself recognized as complex and
not reducible to a single perspective. In unbounded systems thinking Mitroff & Linstone (1993)
argue that complex problem solving requires the application of as many disciplines, professorsions, and branches of knowledge as possible, with each one employing different paradigms
of thought. Mitroff & Linstone identify three perspectives: the technical (analysis) perspective
(T), the organizational (societal) perspective (O) and the personal (individual) perspective (P).
The O and P perspectives are essential in making a bridge between analysis (T) and action,
helping the developer to think about the human and social factors that are replete in complex
problems, including ethical aspects (Wood-Harper et al., 1996).
Thus, according to the Multiview framework, an IS development methodology (whether web-
based or otherwise) is emergent only in practice through the interaction of developers,
methods, and situation. Multiview is therefore more usefully seen as a metaphor that is inter-
preted and developed in a particular situation, rather than as a prescriptive description of some
real-world activity (Watson & Wood-Harper, 1995).

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