What Is Information Systems?

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Information is everywhere. From coded data in computer science to highly technical algorithms social networking websites draw from to produce customized content for users, information technology is all-encompassing. But the information that directs people and processes is worthless if it can’t be used to guide decisions.

That’s where information systems come into play. What are information systems? How does an information system work? What role do people play in information systems? In an educational context, what is information systems coursework like?

These questions and more receive their answers through the online information systems degree programs at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s (UAB) Collat School of Business. Whether you’re looking for grounding in the basics with a bachelor’s degree or seeking to enhance your understanding and expertise through a master’s degree, the study of information systems within the UAB curriculum will provide you with the skill sets, credentials, and learning outcomes that can prepare you for the field of your choosing, from computer systems to information security.

Two technical professionals examining information systems.

What Is Information Systems as a Concept and What Are Information Systems Used For?

Information systems is an umbrella term used to describe the various networks, hardware, and software that people and businesses use to make sense of data and put it to use. In addition to interpreting data, information systems also collect, process, and distribute it.

From a business perspective, information systems are uniquely important because companies can leverage them to make decisions, implement certain ongoing management tasks, or interact with customers, as noted by Encyclopedia Britannica. Whether it’s analyzing supply chains, processing financial accounts, submitting invoices to suppliers, or automating tasks traditionally handled by human resources departments, businesses of all sizes leverage information systems in many different ways to accomplish various objectives. Personal computers, cloud computing, and social networking websites like Facebook and Twitter would be impossible to operate without information systems fueling those processes. The same can be said for Google, eBay, and numerous other internet-based organizations that provide essential products and services.

What Are the Basic Elements of Information Systems?

While information systems are manifested in many different ways, they all have three elements in common: people, business processes, and information technology. These intrinsic pillars of information systems are known as the information systems triangle. Technology is in a constant state of advancement. What was considered state-of-the-art in the mid-20th century is antiquated compared to today. But people, business processes, and information technology have always served as the core components of information systems. Each constituent part of the information systems triangle relies on its counterparts to turn ideas into actionable outcomes.

What Role Do People Play in Information Systems?

While information technology may be what facilitates certain business activities, the heartbeat of information systems comes from the people involved, whether those individuals are on the receiving end of information systems services (e.g. customers) or the decision-makers actually leveraging those services. Information systems are designed to make people’s lives easier and more convenient, and, when used effectively, they can be a game-changer in terms of growth and advancement in a particular profession, activity, industry, or life in general.

Perhaps the best example of this is the smartphone and how information technology has made this wireless device a core element of society — something few could have imagined when the telephone was first invented. According to the Pew Research Center, more than 80% of Americans own a smartphone today. In other advanced economies, smartphone ownership is over 95% (i.e. South Korea). From searching the internet to sending text messages to doubling as a camera, smartphone capabilities have made lives more convenient and enjoyable for billions of people. Those involved in producing the technology and making it accessible to everyday consumers made the smartphone possible. They ultimately have the biggest influence on the success or failure of information systems.

How Does an Information System Work?

Just as there are multiple definitions for what the field of information systems is all about, the same can be said for how they work. It all depends on the context and the particular information system. Here is a partial list of the various types of information systems:

  • Decision support systems
  • Management information systems
  • Search engines
  • Global information systems
  • Process control systems
  • Computing platforms
  • Data warehouses
  • Multimedia information systems
  • Geographic information systems
  • Computer systems

The ongoing development and advancement in technology have led to the proliferation of information systems. The category that may be most associated with information systems consists of computer systems, or computer-based information systems. For such systems to work, be they personal computers in desktop form or tablets, they typically need a combination of the following:

  • Hardware
  • Software
  • Database
  • Network
  • Commands


From internal processing units and chips to printers and scanners, hardware encompasses the physical components used to interpret and record data.


Software works hand in hand with hardware; they depend upon each other. Whereas hardware displays data, software is the medium by which hardware can interpret data and convert it in a way that is easily understood.


A database is the storage area for the data a computer system holds. It may need to be structured or organized in a specific way to be correctly interpreted or accessed.


A network is a complex system of interconnected components that allow information to go from one location to another. Smartphones, for example, rely on wireless communication networks to transmit data. Similar to the relationship between software and hardware, networks, software, and hardware are frequently complementary.


Commands are the procedures or instructions that the other aspects of a computer-based information system need to process information, transfer it, or record it. Commands serve as the direction and govern how data is supposed to be handled.

These core elements form the backbone of a computer-based information system. The online curriculum from the Collat School of Business goes into greater detail and depth on these and other kinds of information systems. From Information Systems to Database Management, each class is designed to help you identify not just what information is systems all about but how you create one. The curriculum is comprehensive and can help prepare you for industries in the private and public sectors, whether as an information security analyst for government agencies or a web developer for a newly launched startup firm.

What Is the Strategic Role of an Information System?

From a business perspective, information systems are what enable executives, managers, associates, and employees to make decisions grounded in facts and observable data. In this way, information systems can provide insight into business processes and whether maintaining those processes will be beneficial to the organization from a profitability standpoint or have adverse consequences that reduce competitiveness.

Some of the most successful organizations in the world reached this level by using information systems to become more efficient. A classic example is Walmart, which today is not only the largest retailer but largest employer in the world.

In an interview with CIO magazine several years ago, then-Chief Information Officer Kevin Turner attributed much of the company’s success to its centralized information systems, which the retail giant operates out of its headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas. In developing the company’s information systems strategy, Turner noted that it was rooted in three principal philosophies: centralization, common systems and platforms, and prioritizing the merchant-to-customer relationship.

“Now, along the way, a lot of folks were not optimistic that we’d be able to grow as much as we have and still keep our IS centralized and running on common platforms,” Turner explained. “But that’s been one of the things that’s allowed us to drive our costs down and helps us be really efficient.”

Turner added that the centralization of information for how tasks are to be performed, so they’re all the same and harmonious, is what has allowed the company to grow and transfer associates from one location to another smoothly while also minimizing learning curves.

“We don’t have significant downtime or startup time in the transition,” Turner stated.

There are many reasons why Walmart has grown and developed to the extent that it has. However, it’s safe to say its information systems provided the multinational organization with the tools and intelligence to smooth out business processes, allowing for healthy competition with not only fellow retailers but also grocers, major electronics suppliers, and e-commerce giants such as Amazon and Alibaba.

What Can You Do with a Degree in Information Systems?

Now that you know more about information systems, you may be curious what roles are available to you with a bachelor’s or master’s degree. The career options are almost as limitless as data itself. All of the following are in demand:

  • Information systems managers
  • Computer systems analysts
  • Web developers
  • Software developers
  • Database administrators
  • Computer systems administrators
  • Computer network architects

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics provides a comprehensive explanation of what several of these professionals do on a day-to-day basis, their work environments, how to go about becoming one — in terms of the education required — and their typical salaries.

For example, computer and information systems is a thriving occupation. According to the BLS, it’s growing faster (10%) than the average rate for all occupations (4%). Employment in the field generally requires a bachelor’s degree, and the mean pay is in the six figures. On average in 2019, the most recent year for which data is available, computer and information systems managers earned $146,360.

In terms of their job duties, IS managers’ days may involve budgeting tech projects, evaluating computer and technological needs for their employers, and negotiating prices with vendors to obtain new or optimized tech services and products.

There are also several types of information systems managers, a distinction that impacts earning potential and job responsibilities. Chief information officers, chief technology officers, IT directors, and IT security managers are a few of them.

Information systems is an exciting industry and there could certainly be a place for you in it. For more details on these programs and the UAB curriculum, download the free brochure on our website.

Recommended Reading

Bachelor’s in Information Systems: Learning Outcomes and Career Paths

A Day in the Life of an Information Security Analyst


CIO: Walmart: IT Inside the World’s Biggest Company

Walmart Location Facts

Britannica: Information Systems

BLS: Computer and Information Systems