A Review of MIS Essentials 4th Edition, by David Kroenke

MIS Essentials 4th Edition, by David Kroenke is primarily used as a textbook in a Management Information Systems class. The book is for students who plan to become, in the author’s phrase, business professionals, i.e. business majors. This review is for teachers who plan on using this textbook.

Kroenke is enthusiastic about his subject, claiming that Introduction to MIS is the most important class the business professional will take in the Business School.

Why?

Moore’s Law. Moore’s Law loosely states that computing power doubles every two years. Moore’s law leads Kroenke to state that data processing, communications, and storage costs are trending towards zero.

Standing between Kroenke’s business professionals and all this free data processing, communications, and storage are an array of highly paid Systems professionals. These are the people who implement instances of operating systems in the cloud, harden these systems so they can survive hacking on the internet, tune databases to work efficiently, and configure application programs to meet company’s needs. If any of these people fail to do their job, or does their job incompetently, business may stop.

Its been this way for years. The cost of machines was outstripped by the cost of the people who run them years ago.

Kroenke deploys or ignores these people depending on his own likes and dislikes. When he likes a technological function, say, apps for cell phones, or moving business to the cloud, he ignores the technical people needed to implement these projects. Technology he dislikes, such as writing custom enterprise software, he deploys legions of technical people in complex projects far too risky, complicated and expensive for a business to attempt.

In chapter 3 he introduces Porter’s methodology of analyzing a business sector in terms of competitive strategy. He does this to make two points about MIS:

  1.  A well executed MIS system can significantly reduce a company’s overhead, rendering it more competitive.
  2. A well executed MIS system can give a company unique advantages over its competitors.

While Porter’s model  is an apt model to make these points, it seems like overkill to devote a chapter to Porter’s system of competitive analysis in an MIS book. It would have been sufficient to state these two points, show some examples, and move on.

Chapter 4, on Hardware and Software is a shallow explanation of how computers work. Kroenke warns the reader:

For reasons that interest many people but are irrelevant for business professionals, bits are grouped into 8-bit chunks called bytes.

It is extraordinary to read in an academic text that a reason is irrelevant. Computer architecture is built on powers of two, and 2 to the 3rd represents a convenient amount of storage. Not understanding this, and something of binary arithmetic, renders many details of computer’s operation arbitrary and inexplicable. Better to understand this, then move on, instead of warning the reader off.

Indeed, in the next paragraph Kroenke defines kilobytes, megabytes and terrabytes. These words represent a genuine rarity in the English lexicon in that they are hopelessly ambiguous. The metric system demands that kilo, mega and terra represent 1000, 1,000,000, and 10,000,000 respectively. Computer architecture and tradition suggests they represent 2 to the 10th, 2 to the 20th and 2 to the 30th . The International Electrotechnical Commission endorses the non-ambiguous Kibbibyte as 2 to the 10th bytes with corresponding terminology for Megabytes (Mebbibytes) and Gigabytes (Gibbibytes). Despite this endorsement and many other standards organizations endorsing their use, the terminology has not been widely adopted and the ambiguity remains.

Academic Computer science books uniformly define kilobytes, megabytes, and terabytes unambiguously as 2 to the 10th, 2 to the 20th, and 2 to the 40th bytes respectively. This allows computer science professors to test students by asking multiple choice questions such as whether a kilobyte is 1000 bytes or 1024 bytes. Student’s answers fall on the normal curve with students who are good at memorizing irrelevant facts remembering the extra 24 bytes. Education has happened.  The rest of the world uses the ambiguous terminology unless the difference is critical then the exact number of bytes is specified.

Kroenke, operating without the benefit of powers of two or binary arithmetic uses the academic definition of a kilobyte as 1024 bytes, a megabyte is 1,048,576 bytes and so on. No explanation is given for these odd amounts; The explanation contained in the previous two paragraphs has been deemed irrelevant to the business professional.

Other odd definitions follow since nothing technical is really explained. Client server relationships cannot be defined as features of a protocol because the concept of a protocol is not introduced. Clients and servers are defined as attributes of computers, as in client computers and server computers. The book proceeds to ignore its own definition as Kroenke goes on to discuss client and server programs, adding to the reader’s confusion.

Application software is adequately defined but the reader is warned off custom development as difficult and risky. App development is encouraged and deemed sensible. Later in the book, when Kroenke writes about enterprise information systems, he recommends systems from SAP, Peoplesoft and SalesForce. He recommends these products as an alternative to custom software development disregarding the well-known high costs of training and configuring these projects across an enterprise, not to mention modifying them which brings you back to – software development. He doesn’t discuss the trade off between a custom system which may only include code needed by the enterprise, and a mass produced system, with much more complex code due to its ability to be configured in many different ways.

These products are broadly used and a more thorough coverage of them in a business computing textbook would be welcomed. Some specifics about configuring a SaleForce implementation for an enterprise would be helpful as this sort of job is generally done by business people and not CS majors.

The book would have benefited by giving more advice on how to develop software and on getting things right, in general. As Kroenke says, a business professional is increasing likely to be involved with software development in the course of his career. Kroneke wisely quotes other business authors in his book and there is a large body of literature devoted to software development. Getting things right, that is, ensuring that complicated MIS systems yield accurate information, is glossed over. Some references to classic quality assurance sources such as Philip Crosby’s Quality Is Free or W. Edward Deming’s work on quality control would have improved the book.

Thin-client software is defined as software that runs in a browser. Thick client software is defined as software that is pre-installed on the client. That “client” was previously defined as describing a computer is ignored. The relationship between thin or thick clients to servers is not mentioned.

None of the above is true.  Software that runs in a browser is called a plug-in or, less commonly, an add-on. All client software communicates with server software usually located somewhere else. Thin and thick refers to the relative roles of the client and the server and the amount of computing resources used on the respective machines. With a thin client the server does more, and the client less. With a thick client the client does more and the server does less.

Actually Kroenke is aggressively misleading here as browser memory and CPU requirements are becoming larger as Javascript programs running on browsers take up larger memory footprints as they become more sophisticated.

What else? Ubuntu is defined as an Operating system. It’s not. It’s  a distribution of Linux, an operating system, which comes with a desktop interface.

Chapter 5 is on databases. Certainly there is a lot of unnecessary jargon in technology. Much technology can be explained more simply than is often the case. You can however, get so simple that your explanations are wrong.

Kroenke starts by defining databases as programs to help people keep track of things. He distinguishes databases from other programs to keep track of things, such as spreadsheets, by stating that databases are multi-themed and spreadsheets are not. What is a theme? Well, Kroenke thinks a theme is a concept. He displays screenshots of a multi-table normalized Access database and a non-normalized Excel spreadsheet containing only one worksheet. The difference, according to Kroenke, is that the spreadsheet is mono-themed and the access database is multi-themed. Since Excel is mono-themed, it cannot hold the Access database.

What does this mean? I have no idea. Nobody talks like this. The decision to use Access or Excel is a major and important one and one likely to confront readers of this book. Kroenke’s explanation of the difference between the two products is incomprehensible.

He has difficulty defining the difference between the two because he doesn’t define normalization. He describes some sample data which is better expressed in Access than in Excel. The Access database is capable of being normalized within Access. The Excel data is inherently normalized due to its simplicity. He correctly concludes that Excel cannot hold a normalized database, but the his description of the reason is vague and hard to understand.

While normalization is a distinguishing difference between a database and a spreadsheet, it is hardly the qualifying difference. The qualifying difference between the two is the data model underlying the respective products. A spreadsheet is modeled on a matrix, a database is modeled on a series of filing cabinets.

In practice the distinction is often ignored. People who understand Excel and don’t understand Access create databases in Excel using multiple worksheets with Vlookup formulas implementing relationships between worksheets. This offers a passable simulation of a normalized relational database. This offends data base administrators, yet it works after a fashion and is widely used. Its chief advantage it that it uses a technology (Excel) shared by many business and accounting people.

He enumerates the reasons for using databases, foremost among them is the problem of resolving simultaneous updates to the database. Database programmers and database administrators refer to this as the as the concurrency problem. Kroenke refers to it as the host-update problem. Google Ngram did not recognize this terminology – another instance of Kroenke sending out his students with terminology unique to himself.

He confuses data integrity, a general term regarding the accuracy of data on a computer, with database integrity, which describes the ability of data to conform to self-contained database constraints.

In Chapter 7, describing Organizations and Information systems Kroenke does a good job describing and categorizing the information systems used by large enterprises. He correctly (!) defines Data Silos as the amassing of information by separate departments or groups in the enterprise. He believes data silos to be undesirable although his one sentence description of why they are created is that they meet “particular needs” of a group or department within the enterprise. Data silos usually arise in enterprises because the IT department fails to meet the needs of the various departments. Departmental computing needs are often neglected in favor of the needs of the top executives of the company. As such, it is difficult to eliminate them until you can show that you can functionally replace them. Kroenke’s case studies imply that the data silo’s information is often fragmented and out of date compared to the IT department’s information. Often the opposite is true – the data silo has the accurate information and the information in the enterprise IT system is out of date, which is why a department developed the data silo in the first place.

Chapter 8 is on Social Media systems. Kroenke should be congratulated on having a chapter on Social Media. Social Media is a minefield. On the one hand it’s a powerful source of both sales and support for businesses. On the other hand, unlike traditional advertising which, with rare exceptions, runs only the risk of being ineffective, using social media runs a much larger risk of actually offending your customers. A failed traditional advertising campaign leaves sales flat. A failed social media campaign can make sales plummet. Many businesses have no choice but to get involved in social media because traditional advertising media have been replaced by internet based media. He does a good job with this chapter, using some of the work that academics have used researching social media along with many anecdotal stories of successful use of social media.

At this point, I am 2/3rd of the way through the book. The rest of the book continues conventionally, with chapters on IS development, IS Security, IS management. Of note is the author’s introduction of swim-lane notation, an excellent addition to the book as it emphasizes the role of people in IT processes.

The book ends with a chapter on collaborative information systems with the author favoring the more sophisticated systems. This is not surprising from an author of a book with 120 reviewers and 30 people on its design team. It is hard, however, to take his recommendations seriously given the large number of errors in his own book.

Discussion

Kroenke misdefines terms. I am glad he is covering the cutting edge of the computing world today. New technology changes quickly and the technical discussion is often dominated by commercial interests. Topics such as cloud computing and social media are increasingly part of business and marketing and business people need to know about them. Adopting a consistent terminology in fields that are evolving quickly can be challenging, but it is necessary in order for business people and technical people to communicate effectively. Too often the book oversimplifies important terms and concepts needed in MIS.

The book would have benefited by giving more advice on how to develop software and deal with technical people and on getting things right. As Kroenke says, a business professional is increasing likely to be involved with software development in the course of his career. Kroenke wisely borrows from other business authors in his book. He neglects the large body of literature devoted to software development.

Why No Math?

The absolute lack of any mathematics in the book seems to be a blanket editorial decision unrelated to the demands of the material.  It is a mistake. In our local state university, the lower level requirements for a business major includes two semesters of college math through calculus. Business students can handle a few formulas and graphs in an MIS textbook. As Kroenke reminds us, jobs in business today place a huge premium on effective quantitative skills. Kroenke’s reluctance to use math in his book seems ill-considered and often makes the concepts that he is discussing harder or impossible to understand.

Layout

Kroenke states in the introduction that from the beginning of this addition he insisted, presumably to his 30  person design team, that all illustrations in the book actually have something to do with the text. This evidently is a feature uncommon in Pearson’s published textbooks. Academics considering publishing a textbook with Pearson should note this.

Despite his statements in the introduction, he seems to have lost the argument. I note page 304, an ethics guide on using computers at work for non-work related activities. The text takes up well less than half the page. The rest of the page is taken up by a drawing of a young man, casually dressed, wearing headphones. The young man, along with 4 other young people appear throughout the book for no apparent reason.  Is the young man contemplating using a computer at work for non-work related activities? Or is he the one posing the question. Hard to tell. Why is he wearing headphones?

On the opposite page is a photograph of a young man in a suit lounging in front of a computer manipulating a joystick. On his desk is a pile of work. It’s a little more obvious what he is doing, he’s using a computer for non-work related activities. This illustration takes up about 5/8ths of the page. The man playing computer games is wearing a suit. The few people in suits in the book are almost always negative depictions. We have a man with a Pinocchio like nose (a liar), and a cheesy used car salesman (no tie, but a sport jacket). The book seems to make a point of depicting people in traditional business attire doing something negative. The majority of my students are business majors. The best of my students aspire to jobs where they will wear jackets and ties to work every day. Why does Kroenke discourage them so?

Other Mistakes

“Buy-in” is not remotely unethical except possibly for cost plus defense contractors.

A database table doesn’t have to have a key.

Don’t describe an elaborate procedure for letting others log in to a company computer system using your password. Don’t let anybody use a computer under your security credentials. Period.

Ethics and Discussion

Each chapter concludes with  a two page ethics case study and a two page discussion.   The ethics studies seem to be less about ethics issues which arise in business MIS functions and more about ethics issues which are in the news and related to the internet or young people in some way or another. Kroenke has a case study on “showrooming”,  looking at large screen TV’s at Best Buy and later buying them at Amazon. An interesting problem,  worthy of study in a business class, and perhaps ethical issue for everybody buying a new wide-screen for the Superbowl but hardly an ethical issue for a business class. Most of his ethical issues are similar to this. Issues that have an ethical component but not an MIS component.  Should you misrepresent the position of co-worker who misses work becuase he is ill?  Misstate the profits of your company to inflate its stock price? Ethical issues certainly, but not particularly subtle ones and ones that have nothing to do with the subject of the book.

When he does cover an MIS related issue he often completely represents something as an ethical issue which, in reality, is quite technical and difficult to determine. He shows a graph which shows an absolute difference in sales over time and, since the bottom of the the graph is missing, neglects the proportional difference. This is  unethical and amounts to “lying with statistics”. But nowhere in the book does he treat the subject of how to present information honestly, a challenging and difficult subject which is rewarding for students to study and which most people don’t understand.

Later, he presents us with an employee who has access to the company HR database and suspects the company of paying its Hispanic employees less than its other employees. A fascinating question. Did the employee factor in time at the job? Perhaps the company is trying to hire Hispanics to counter past patterns of discrimination and many Hispanics are new hires. Databases have much useful information, but to “prove” something with a database is difficult and most proofs are statistical. Statistical techniques such as Bayes theorem are helpful in these analyses, but these are ignored and the question is simply treated as a moral one.

Conclusions

The book is not helpful. Kroenke is convincing in the first chapter when he states that a knowledge of MIS has become increasingly important to business professionals. The book provides very little in the way of helpful information to navigate IT in business.

Kroenke will describe an IT function, provide a vocabulary used with the function, and may even warn the student about the pitfalls in using that function. Absent from the description will be any useful tips, techniques, or research results which help in working with the problem. He introduces two concrete, well realized techniques in the book: Porter’s theory of competitive advantage; and Swim Lane Notation.

To be specific, and criticism should always be specific, read Kroenke on Systems Analysis. Two pages on how often it fails. Two more pages describing the system analysis process, complete with a specialized vocabulary, and warnings about dangerous areas in the Systems Analysis process. No tips or referrals on how to avoid these failures. No one would attempt systems analysis after reading this chapter.

An important and prized ability in business is to look at large amounts of data and derive accurate and useful conclusions from it. Communicating this information to others convincingly and succinctly is equally valuable.  A facility with data and with presentation software is often vital in these tasks.  Kroenke quotes Gregory Bateson on information: Information is a difference that makes a difference. 

A succinct and clever formulation that we can all ruminate on while smoking our pipes. It doesn’t help make students better consumers and presenters of data of which there is more of every day. He goes on to state that his quantitatively oriented colleagues find Bateson’s definition useless. Apparently his colleagues have never heard of the term signal to noise ratio or the Shannon-Hartley theorem.  Bateson here is restating in prose one of the basic theorems of communication theory. Not hard for quantitatively oriented people to get.

The way the book seems to dance away from giving the student useful information is a frustrating experience. The subjects Kroenke attempts to cover in the book are all important to business people’s success. He seems to want to spare his students any conceptually difficult information. Unfortunately, the problems that arise in MIS are conceptually demanding. It has been said that, “a solution can’t be simpler than the problem.” Kroenke, alas has attempted to disprove this.

One thought on “A Review of MIS Essentials 4th Edition, by David Kroenke”

  1. Wow. Very complete and thoughtful review. You saved me a ton of effort. I’m shocked that anyone would actually include in a textbook any procedure for letting others log in to a company computer system using your credentials! Nice catch.

    Re: Ubuntu, I doubt most people understand the difference between an OS and a specific distro of the OS, so you might be splitting hairs at this level of reader. Linux doesn’t get much air time in this text, so this over-simplification didn’t bother me much. Loads of Linux distros include ‘OS’ in their names: CentOS, PCLinuxOS, SteamOS, etc.

    Thanks again!

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