A management information system (MIS) is a computerized database of financial information organized and programmed in such a way that it produces regular reports on operations for every level of management in a company. It is usually also possible to obtain special reports from the system easily. The main purpose of the MIS is to give managers feedback about their own performance; top management can monitor the company as a whole. Information displayed by the MIS typically shows "actual" data over against "planned" results and results from a year before; thus it measures progress against goals. The MIS receives data from company units and functions. Some of the data are collected automatically from computer-linked check-out counters; others are keyed in at periodic intervals. Routine reports are preprogrammed and run at intervals or on demand while others are obtained using built-in query languages; display functions built into the system are used by managers to check on status at desk-side computers connected to the MIS by networks. Many sophisticated systems also monitor and display the performance of the company's stock.
ORIGINS AND EVOLUTION
The MIS represents the electronic automation of several different kinds of counting, tallying, record-keeping, and accounting techniques of which the by far oldest, of course, was the ledger on which the business owner kept track of his or her business. Automation emerged in the 1880s in the form of tabulating cards which could be sorted and counted. These were the punch-cards still remembered by many: they captured elements of information keyed in on punch-card machines; the cards were then processed by other machines some of which could print out results of tallies. Each card was the equivalent of what today would be called a database record, with different areas on the card treated as fields. World-famous IBM had its start in 1911; it was then called Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company. Before IBM there was C-T-R. Punch cards were used to keep time records and to record weights at scales. The U.S. Census used such cards to record and to manipulate its data as well. When the first computers emerged after World War II punch-card systems were used both as their front end (feeding them data and programs) and as their output (computers cut cards and other machines printed from these). Card systems did not entirely disappear until the 1970s. They were ultimately replaced by magnetic storage media (tape and disks). Computers using such storage media speeded up tallying; the computer introduced calculating functions. MIS developed as the most crucial accounting functions became computerized.
Waves of innovation spread the fundamental virtues of coherent information systems across all corporate functions and to all sizes of businesses in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. Within companies major functional areas developed their own MIS capabilities; often these were not yet connected: engineering, manufacturing, and inventory systems developed side by side sometimes running on specialized hardware. Personal computers ("micros," PCs) appeared in the 70s and spread widely in the 80s. Some of these were used as free-standing "seeds" of MIS systems serving sales, marketing, and personnel systems, with summarized data from them transferred to the "mainframe." In the 1980s networked PCs appeared and developed into powerful systems in their own right in the 1990s in many companies displacing midsized and small computers. Equipped with powerful database engines, such networks were in turn organized for MIS purposes. Simultaneously, in the 90s, the World Wide Web came of age, morphed into the Internet with a visual interface, connecting all sorts of systems to one another.
Midway through the first decade of the 21st century the narrowly conceived idea of the MIS has become somewhat fuzzy. Management information systems, of course, are still doing their jobs, but their function is now one among many others that feed information to people in business to help them manage. Systems are available for computer assisted design and manufacturing (CAD-CAM); computers supervise industrial processes in power, chemicals, petrochemicals, pipelines, transport systems, etc. Systems manage and transfer money worldwide and communicate worldwide. Virtually all major administrative functions are supported by automated system. Many people now file their taxes over the Internet and have their refunds credited (or money owning deducted) from bank accounts automatically. MIS was thus the first major system of the Information Age. At present the initials IT are coming into universal use. "Information Technology" is now the category to designate any and all software-hardware-communications structures that today work like a virtual nervous system of society at all levels.
MIS AND SMALL BUSINESS
If MIS is defined as a computer-based coherent arrangement of information aiding the management function, a small business running even a single computer appropriately equipped and connected is operating a management information system. The term used to be restricted to large systems running on mainframes, but that dated concept is no longer meaningful. A medical practice with a single doctor running software for billing customers, scheduling appointments, connected by the Internet to a network of insurance companies, cross-linked to accounting software capable of cutting checks is de facto an MIS. In the same vein a small manufacturer's rep organization with three principals on the road and an administrative manager at the home office has an MIS system, that system becomes the link between all the parts. It can link to the inventory systems, handle accounting, and serves as the base of communications with each rep, each one carrying a laptop. Virtually all small businesses engaged in consulting, marketing, sales, research, communications, and other service industries have large computer networks on which they deploy substantial databases. MIS has come of age and has become an integral part of small business.
But while virtually every company now uses computers, not all have as yet undertaken the kind of integration described above. To take the last step, however, has become much easier—provided that good reasons are present for doing so. The motivation for organizing information better usually comes from disorder—ordering again what has already been ordered, and sitting in boxes somewhere, because the company controls its inventory poorly. Motivation may arise also from hearing about others who are exploiting some resource, like a customer list, while the owner's own list is in sixteen pieces all over the place. There are sometimes also reasons for not automating things too much: in modern times a business can grind to a dead halt because "the network is down."
Upgrading the information system usually begins by identifying some kind of a problem and then seeking a solution. In that process a knowledgeable resource-person brought in from the outside can provide a great deal of help. If the problem is over-stocking, for example, solving that problem will often become the starting point for a new information system touching on many other aspects of the business. The first question a consultant is likely to ask will concern how things are managed now. In the description of the process, the discovery of potential solutions will begin. It is usually a good idea to call on two or three service firms for initial consultations; these rarely cost any money. Once the owner feels comfortable with one of these vendors, the process can then be deepened.
The business owner has the option of buying various software packages for various problems and then gradually linking them into a system with the help of a value-added reseller (VAR) or a systems integrator. This solution is probably best for the small business with fewer than 50 employees. Larger companies may in addition also want to explore options offered by application services providers or management service providers (ASPs and MSPs respectively, collectively referred to as xSPs) in installing ERP systems and providing Web services. ASPs deliver high-end business applications to a user from a central web site. MSPs offer on-site or Web-based systems management services to a company. ERP stands for "enterprise resource planning," a class of systems that integrate manufacturing, purchasing, inventory management, and financial data into a single system with or without Web capabilities. ERPs are very popular with larger and midsized firms but were increasingly penetrating the small business sector as well in the mid-2000s.
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