The status of IS as a distinct discipline in Victoria

In the short term, relating the Victorian data to the underlying framework that guides the IS-in-Australia study as proposed by Whitley (1984b) and refined by Ridley (2006), it would appear that the Victorian data do not support IS as a distinct scientific discipline under the conditions for acceptance as an academic discipline. Each of the framework’s criteria will be addressed separately in light of the Victorian data to demonstrate the conclusions reached.

The first of Whitley’s three conditions that must be met in order for an area of study to be considered a ‘distinct scientific field’ is a social process that results in scientific reputations becoming socially prestigious and controlling critical rewards. Mingers and Stowell (1997) suggest this can be evidenced through publications and success in attracting research funding. Clearly, Victorian researchers view themselves as being somewhat less respected than their counterparts in other disciplines, with only one respondent feeling that IS researchers were of higher status than those in other departments. On the other hand, documentary evidence shows that a number of senior IS academics in Victoria have attained status as full professors and are recognised as being as qualified as their peers in other more mature disciplines. The deficiency in meeting this criterion is perhaps more telling in regard to ‘attracting research funding’, where the data demonstrate clearly that external funding support for IS research continues to be elusive and IS researchers appear to be losing ground as they struggle with dwindling internal funding.

The second of Whitley’s criteria is the need to establish standards of research competence and skills. Here, the Victorian data add to the long-standing discussion about whether IS is a discipline (Dickson et al. 1982; Benbasat and Weber 1996; Boudreau et al. 2001) and the current perception that IS continues to align itself more closely with a ‘fragmented adhocracy’, as suggested by Checkland and Holwell (1998) and Kanungo (2004), than a distinct discipline. For example, while there were pockets of successful grant applications and a limited number of research centres throughout the state, the data revealed an overall lack of success in attracting research funding. This could be construed as a negative reflection on research competence and skills that appeared to be limited to interpretivism and lacking the application of the more diverse, blended approach usually evident in more mature disciplines.

The third and final Whitley criterion is one that requires the existence of a unique symbol system to allow exclusion of outsiders and unambiguous communication between initiates within the field. There are a few IS departments that have achieved autonomy (Monash, Swinburne, University of Ballarat), but for the most part the IS programs are situated within business, arts or science faculties. Similarly, only two-thirds of Victorian IS programs are recognised as separate entities and the diversity of research topics under scrutiny would clearly demonstrate a heavy reliance on reference disciplines with little or no discussion of the use of an IS theory. This would suggest that this criterion has not been met.

Applying Ridley’s (2006) two additional criteria—theory or laws, rules and evidenced guidelines and research and teaching key topics—led to mixed conclusions. As to theory, there appears to be a strong focus on interpretivist research methods, which could lead to the conclusion that in IS programs in Victoria there is an agreed set of laws, rules and evidenced guidelines. This is not the case with respect to teaching. The distinctive themes taught within many of the IS programs vary considerably, and it is difficult to see any key teaching topics across programs and institutions in Victoria. Similarly, little evidence points to a coherent set of key research topics. Table 9.5 lists no less than 33 different areas of research across the nine Victorian universities. This indicates that even within a single program there is no homogeneous set of key research topics, with the exception of the ACU National, where its research focuses almost exclusively on IS/e-commerce education.

Finally, we assess the data with respect to the relationships between the degree of professionalism and impacts of local contingencies. Whitley (1984a, 1984b) suggests that to be professional a discipline will not be highly influenced by local contingencies. From the data collected in Victoria, it would appear that while universities in Victoria are currently seeking increased collaboration with the local community and industry as part of their strategic vision—as in the strong industry-based learning degree programs at Swinburne and Monash Universities, established about 1990 as an initiative of the Business Council of Australia—the majority of universities felt the influence of local industries was negligible in terms of having an impact on their curriculum. Efforts to increase interaction with external partners are, however, under way and, in some cases, are being promoted by top university officials. In the case of Victoria University, it is the vice-chancellor who is spearheading these initiatives. Victoria University was one of the earliest universities to link the program to systems in the market. The Faculty of Business and Law and SAP signed an agreement in March 1998 to enable the university to develop courses and conduct research based on SAP’s Enterprise Resource Planning System, referred to as SAP R/3. In the case of Monash, the Dean of Information Systems and full professors were primarily instrumental in this area. At Swinburne, the faculty as a whole was attempting to increase ties to industry to be ‘alert to any possible “competitive advantage” in responding to special local needs’. Where local influences were present, the most influential industries named were manufacturing and consulting services. At the ACU National, IS curricula are not affected by local factors but are affected more by the ethical influence in the Catholic mission as well as ethical and social responsibilities, which will influence the curricula to a certain extent.

National influences, on the other hand, are affecting IS curricula across Victoria. For example, Monash appears to be affected more strongly by national rather than local community and industry influences, or by individual influences within the university attributed to staffing changes over the years. Likewise, Swinburne saw national influences as being most influential. Overall, these findings suggest that IS programs in Victorian universities have achieved a certain degree of professionalism.