Background - 12.05.2020 - 00:00 

From a world without internet to a digital society

30 years ago, the Institute of Information Management (IWI-HSG) was established. An interview with Professors Walter Brenner and Jan Marco Leimeister about the beginnings of the Institute with not a laptop in sight, the significance of information technology for the economy and for society, and the future of IT education at the HSG.
Source: HSG Newsroom

12 May 2020.

The IWI was set up in 1989. What was IT taken to mean at the time?

At the time, IT existed almost solely in big corporations. Central computers dominated; they were used to run applications for the automation of repetitive operative processes. Most of these applications were developed by the companies themselves. Personal computers were already around. They were used for word processing and spreadsheets. Communication by e-mail was still rather an arcane science and was only used by very few people. It’s fascinating to recall what we did not have in those days: the internet, laptops, the proliferation of computers in private households and, of course, mobile communication.

What were the central business IT issues at the beginning?

As early as 1989, the founders of the IWI did not doubt the further development of IT, its penetration into all areas of society, as well as its strategic significance for companies and the competitiveness of nations. And it was clear from the start that the University of St.Gallen needed a strong business IT arm as part of the Department of Business Administration (today’s School of Management). The central function of business IT was and is to act as a bridge between the individual disciplines of business administration and information technology. The IWI was fortunate in the choice of its topics from the very beginning. Business engineering resulted in the corporate information system design theory that is well-known in the entire German-speaking area; information management emerged as a subdiscipline which dealt with the leadership and the structure of IT departments; the “electronic markets” field of issues produced initial concepts for the later internet economy; and working with Lotus Notes demonstrated for the first time how we can work together in a digital world. It must also be remembered that information security was an issue at the Institute of Information Management as early as the 1990s.

How has the Institute developed in the last 30 years?

In terms of issues, the IWI continuously developed in tandem with the development of information and communication technology. From a present-day perspective, we may say with a certain amount of pride that we identified many issues that were important for the Swiss economy and that we developed relevant concepts that were well received throughout academia and business. It was central for the IWI to do research about the internet, the spread of information technology among private households, data logistics, mobile information processing and the increasingly powerful strategic significance of IT for companies. In the 1990s, a “Business IT” specialisation was introduced, which in the course of the Bologna reform became one of the cornerstones of the Master’s programme in Business Innovation. With the Master’s programme in Business Engineering, the IWI has also been involved in executive education ever since the 1990s. It turned out in research, teaching and executive education that business IT is now a central discipline of business administration and constitutes an important part of the School of Management. Some key figures demonstrate the Institute’s success story: since 1989, 23 IWI researchers were appointed university professors and 14 Fachhochschule professors; in the past ten years, 93 doctoral theses were submitted and accepted, 81 A publications and 8 FT50 publications were written, and more than CHF 50m third-party funds were raised. The rankings of business newspapers such as Handelsblatt and Wirtschaftswoche regularly place the HSG researchers with most publications in the ranks of the IWI.

What does the IWI stand for today, and what will it stand for in the future?

The Institute of Information Management is one of the University of St.Gallen’s largest institutes. It has an excellent international reputation and has optimal network partners in research and practice. The IWI continues to be one of Europe’s leading institutes of business IT and constantly publishes work at an internationally high level. The Institute of Information Management stands for highly relevant issues ranging from basic research and applied research to transfer and executive education. The Institute aims to serve the economy and society by designing business models and applications of digital technologies – while also keeping people centre stage.

What issues will become important in the coming years?

If we can believe the forecasts, the development of IT will continue at the same rate in the next few years as it has done in the last few years. Digital transformation will remain a dominant issue for the economy and for society and thus also become even more important both for teaching and research. From today’s perspective, the course has been set for the University of St.Gallen to be able to make an essential contribution to digital transformation. With the IT education and the School of Computer Science which are now being established, the fundamentals and concepts of IT will be taught in the future. As in the last 30 years, the IWI will operate at the interface between information technology and business administration. The University of St.Gallen will be able to continue its success story in business IT if, with business IT, we manage to build a viable bridge between the School of Computer Science and business administration.

As an excellent and relevant mainstay of the School of Computer Science with a strong research capacity, the IWI will continue to aim to be involved in the successful configuration of digital transformation in the economy and in society and to position the HSG as a thought leader in the field of digitalisation. There will be no shortage of exciting issues to be looked into in the next 30 years, either.

Image: photocase / ohne22