What Is an Information System?


If you are reading this, you are most likely taking a course in information

systems, but do you even know what the course is going to cover? When

you tell your friends or your family that you are taking a course in

information systems, can you explain what it is about? Sometimes when

students are asked what they think an information system is, they give

answers such as "computers," "databases," or "Excel." These are good

answers, but definitely incomplete ones. The study of information

systems goes far beyond understanding some technologies. Let’s begin

our study by defining information systems.

Defining Information Systems

Almost all programs in business require students to take a course in

something called information systems. But what exactly does that term

mean? Let’s take a look at some of the more popular definitions, first from

Wikipedia and then from a couple of textbooks:

• "Information systems (IS) is the study of complementary networks of

hardware and software that people and organizations use to collect,

filter, process, create, and distribute data (“Information Systems,”


Learning Resource

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• "Information systems are combinations of hardware, software, and

telecommunications networks that people build and use to collect,

create, and distribute useful data, typically in organizational settings

(Valacich & Schneider, 2010).

• "Information systems are interrelated components working together

to collect, process, store, and disseminate information to support

decision making, coordination, control, analysis, and visualization in

an organization (Laudon & Laudon, 2012).

As you can see, these definitions focus on two different ways of

describing information systems: the components that make up an

information system and the role that those components play in an

organization. Let’s take a look at each of these.

The Components of Information Systems

Many students understand that an information system has something to

do with databases, spreadsheets, computers and e‐commerce. And they

are all right, at least in part: information systems are made up of different

components that work together to provide value to an organization.

Information systems are made up of five components: hardware,

software, data, people, and process. The first three, fitting under the

category technology, are generally what most students think of when

asked to define information systems. But the last two, people and

process, are really what separate the idea of information systems from

more technical fields, such as computer science. In order to fully

understand information systems, students must understand how all of

these components work together to bring value to an organization.


Technology can be thought of as the application of scientific knowledge

for practical purposes. From the invention of the wheel to the harnessing

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of electricity for artificial lighting, technology is a part of our lives in so

many ways that we tend to take it for granted. As discussed before, the

first three components of information systems—hardware, software, and

data—all fall under the category of technology. Each will be discussed in

more detail in later sections, but we will take a moment here to introduce

them so we can get a full understanding of what an information system is.


Information systems hardware is the part of an information system you

can touch—the physical components of the technology. Computers,

keyboards, disk drives, iPads, and flash drives are all examples of

information systems hardware.


Software is a set of instructions that tells the hardware what to do.

Software is not tangible—it cannot be touched. When programmers

create software programs, what they are really doing is simply typing out

lists of instructions that tell the hardware what to do. There are several

categories of software, with the two main categories being operating‐

system software, which makes the hardware usable, and application

software, which does something useful. Examples of operating systems

include Microsoft Windows on a personal computer and Google’s Android

on a mobile phone. Examples of application software are Microsoft Excel

and Angry Birds.


The third component is data. You can think of data as a collection of facts.

For example, your street address, the city you live in, and your phone

number are all pieces of data. Like software, data is also intangible. By

themselves, pieces of data are not really very useful. But aggregated,

indexed, and organized together into a database, data can become a

powerful tool for businesses. In fact, all of the definitions presented at

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the beginning of this section focused on how information systems

manage data. Organizations collect all kinds of data and use it to make

decisions. These decisions can then be analyzed as to their effectiveness

and the organization can be improved. The reading, Data and Databases,

will cover their uses in organizations.

Networking Communication: A Fourth Technology Piece?

Besides the components of hardware, software, and data, which have

long been considered the core technology of information systems, it has

been suggested that one other component should be added:

communication. An information system can exist without the ability to

communicate—the first personal computers were stand‐alone machines

that did not access the internet. However, in today’s hyper‐connected

world, it is an extremely rare computer that does not connect to another

device or to a network. Technically, the networking communication

component is made up of hardware and software, but it is such a core

feature of today’s information systems that it has become its own



When thinking about information systems, it is easy to get focused on the

technology components and forget that we must look beyond these tools

to fully understand how they integrate into an organization. A focus on

the people involved in information systems is the next step. From the

frontline help‐desk workers, to systems analysts, to programmers, all the

way up to the chief information officer, the people involved with

information systems are an essential element that must not be



The last component of information systems is process. A process is a

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