The History of Management Information Systems

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The history of modern management information systems parallels the evolution of computer hardware and software. The history also parallels the devolution of management control from centralization to decentralization. Today, all computer-based systems that collect, process, store and communicate that data as information are commonly defined as management information systems, or MIS.

Many MIS pundits divide the history of MIS into the five eras, first chronicled by Kenneth and Jane Laudon, authors of the textbook Management Information Systems:

  • First era: Mainframe and minicomputer computing
  • Second era: Personal computers
  • Third era: Client/server networks
  • Fourth era: Enterprise computing
  • Fifth era: Cloud computing

First Era

The first era, pre-1965, was the period of huge mainframe computers that were housed in special temperature-controlled rooms and required computer technicians to operate. IBM was the one-stop supplier of hardware and software. Computer time-sharing was common due to the enormous cost of owning and operating mainframes. As computer technology advanced and computers shrank in size, companies could afford minicomputers, still enormously expensive by today's standard but sufficiently affordable for large companies to own and do their own in-house computing.

Second Era

The second era of personal computers started in 1965 with the introduction of the microprocessor. By the1980s, it was in full bloom with the proliferation of the low-cost Apple I and II and the IBM personal computer, or PC. The introduction of VisiCalc spreadsheet software empowered ordinary employees with the ability to do tasks that companies paid huge sums to do 10 years earlier.

Third Era

As computing power and autonomy devolved to ordinary employees in the 1980s, a simultaneous need arose to share computer information with other employees within the business enterprise. This need advanced the transition to the third era MIS client/server networks. Employees at all levels of the organization could share information in a variety of formats through computer terminals linked to computer servers over common networks called intranets.

Fourth Era

The fourth era, enterprise computing, consolidated disparate single-application software applications used by different departments onto one integrated enterprise platform that was accessed over high-speed networks. Enterprise software solutions integrate essential business operations -- marketing and sales, accounting, finance, human resources, inventory and manufacturing -- to harmonize work and facilitate cooperation across the entire enterprise. Although the application modules used and information accessed differ by departments and levels of authority, enterprise computing allows a 360-degree view of the entire business operation.

Fifth Era

The exponential growth in Internet bandwidth consumption is ushering in the fifth era of MIS, cloud computing. According to Cisco Systems, worldwide Internet traffic is expected to reach 2 zettabytes annually by 2019. For context, one zettabyte equals 1,000 exabytes, and one exabyte equals 1 billion gigabytes. Cloud computing unchains everybody from office-bound PCs, allowing access to enterprise MIS from anywhere with mobile devices.

The fifth era is also the time of the knowledge worker's ascendancy. As decision-making pushes to the lowest levels of organizations, MIS is expected to increasingly empower workers not only as producers of information but also as consumers of the same information. In effect, knowledge workers, as producers and consumers of MIS information, will determine precisely what information MIS generates.

A few years before he died, management guru Peter Drucker proclaimed the most important contribution management must make in the 21st century is to increase the productivity of the knowledge worker by abandoning the command-and-control management style of the 20th century and accepting the inevitability of employee autonomy.

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