Work system has been used loosely in many areas. This article concerns its use in understanding IT-reliant systems in organizations. A notable use of the term occurred in 1977 in the first volume of MIS Quarterly in two articles by Bostrom and Heinen (1977). Later Sumner and Ryan (1994) used it to explain problems in the adoption of CASE (computer-aided software engineering). A number of socio-technical systems researchers such as Trist and Mumford also used the term occasionally, but seemed not to define it in detail. In contrast, the work system approach defines work system carefully and uses it as a basic analytical concept.
A work system is a system in which human participants and/or machines perform work (processes and activities) using information, technology, and other resources to produce products/services for internal or external customers. Typical business organizations contain work systems that procure materials from suppliers, produce products, deliver products to customers, find customers, create financial reports, hire employees, coordinate work across departments, and perform many other functions.
The work system concept is like a common denominator for many of the types of systems that operate within or across organizations. Operational information systems, service systems, projects, supply chains, and ecommerce web sites can all be viewed as special cases of work systems.
- An information system is a work system whose processes and activities are devoted to processing information.
- A service system is a work system that produces services for its customers.
- A project is a work system designed to produce a product and then go out of existence.
- A supply chain is an interorganizational work system devoted to procuring materials and other inputs required to produce a firm's products.
- An ecommerce web site can be viewed as a work system in which a buyer uses a seller's web site to obtain product information and perform purchase transactions.
The relationship between work systems in general and the special cases implies that the same basic concepts apply to all of the special cases, which also have their own specialized vocabulary. In turn, this implies that much of the body of knowledge for the current information systems discipline can be organized around a work system core.
Specific information systems exist to support (other) work systems. Many different degrees of overlap are possible between an information system and a work system that it supports. For example, an information system might provide information for a non-overlapping work system, as happens when a commercial marketing survey provides information to a firm's marketing managers In other cases, an information system may be an integral part of a work system, as happens in highly automated manufacturing and in ecommerce web sites. In these situations, participants in the work system are also participants in the information system, the work system cannot operate properly without the information system, and the information system has little significance outside of the work system.