An Asset for Understanding Information Systems Communication
Pedro Azevedo Rocha
Departmento de Gestão de Empresas, Universidade de Évora, Rua Ferreira Lapa, 2-B, 2 dto., 1150-157 Lisboa, Portugal
Ângela Lacerda Nobre
Department of Economics and Management, Instituto Politécnico de Setúbal, Escola Superior de Ciências Empresariais
Rua Tomás da Anunciação, 41-3, 1350-322 Lisboa, Portugal
Keywords: Semiotics, Communication, Information systems, Understanding, Problem solving.
Abstract: Problem solving resides on knowledge and/or imagination use, and in a dialogue, even in a monologue,
established communication often has misunderstandings, prideful assumptions and crosstalks. The
processing and communication of Information in an organisation are produced by creating, passing and
utilising signs, whatever they may be, with or without the perception of its Semiotics. Considering we could
conceive it in such way, and because we are three dimensional beings, the act of solving is endemic and
unconscious to us. We do it using a cognitive mental and visual mean that resides on a hyper-environment
based on signs, even before the creation of its doctrine. Therefore, Semiotics exists in and within us. With
that definition in mind, why we do not use it and establish it on a daily basis in the classroom, at the
workplace, in social affairs?
The existence of an undefinition of the information’s
concept and the assumption, of establishing a
dialogue about a certain subject – where both
speakers think that they have the same notion of the
issue’s meaning – reflects the origin of many
misunderstandings not only in an Information
Systems (IS) environment but also in the Social one.
That for itself reflects the fact that ‘information’, as
it is anchored to language, is a plastic and not
passive concept – almost like a biologic entity that
adapts to a current active environment, it has its
DNA so it can have a diversity of form. To
overcome this mishaps and communication flaws
most of the times we tend to use analogies
influenced by our education and Nature relation. We
build a cognitive simulated environment that try to
express a facsimile of reality, within which, through
a sort of cognitive tools, we establish
communication. Regarding simulation, modern
French social theorist Jean Baudrillard (1996) claims
that Modern Society has replaced all reality and
meaning with symbols and signs, and that the human
experience is of a simulation of reality rather than
reality itself. We give place to language and/or
corporal mimetizations (Maran, 2003) for the
building of digital, analog and social connections as
a closer and familiar alternative, thus meanings of
our interpretation becomes the responsibility of our
cognitive, sensitive and emotional perception
inherent to the cultural education of each person or
the maturity of a certain system. In a Society
dependent of communication (whatever its form
ought to be) the contrariety of its lack or
imperfection it is doomed to failure, as Society is an
open system, fact that is an underlined characteristic
of General System Theory. (Bertalanffy, 1968)
Thus, this article will claim that those referred tools
will be the ‘symbols’ and ‘signs’ that Baudrillard
(1996) mentioned, represented by a doctrine of signs
(Semiotics) and Peirce’s Pragmatism.
The origin of semiotics took place through
Azevedo Rocha P. and Lacerda Nobre Â. (2009).
SEMIOTICS - An Asset for Understanding Information Systems Communication.
In Proceedings of the 11th International Conference on Enterprise Information Systems - Information Systems Analysis and Specification, pages
DOI: 10.5220/0002015902730278
Hippocrates, Plato and Aristotle. In conformity with
Sebeok (1976: Nobre, 2007) ‘semiotic’ derives from
the Greek definition of symptom, semeion, in other
words “sign that stands for something other than
itself”. (Nobre, 2007) Henry Stubbes, in 1670
through signs interpretation in Medicine, and John
Locke, in his 1690 Essay Concerning Human
Understanding, revived and underlined the role of
Semiotics describing it as the “doctrine of signs”.
(Nobre, 2007) As stated by Locke, the relations
between ‘things’, ‘ideas’ and ‘words’ are semiotic in
nature. Locke anticipated what later would allow
philosophers to comprehend the bond between
representation and knowledge. (Nobre, 2007)
Between the end of the 19th century and the
beginning of the 20th century, bloomed a semiotic
consciousness through the influence of two great
scholars – Ferdinand Saussure [1857-1913] in
Europe with Semiology and Charles Sanders Peirce
[1839-1914] in North America giving emphasis to
Semiotics. While Saussure went over a language
relation, Peirce gave importance to the contextual
side. Chandler (2002: Nobre, 2007) referred that
Peirce’s work developed a perspective of semiotics
as permeating all reality, and a view of the universe
as “perfused with signs” – An important perspective
to our claim. As Nobre (2007) pointed out, Peirce’s
theory defends that “individuals cannot perceive
things or think about the world without the
mediation of signs”.
Sustaining the semiotical practical side, against a
conventional practical side, Lawes (2002: Nobre,
2007) said: “(...) semiotics takes an outside-in
approach, studying human communications and
culture.” Semiotics is not just a theory but an
overlooked common and unavoidable practice,
present in communication, and as a discipline,
corresponds to the analysis of signs and the study of
sign systems. Semiotic theory is a powerful resource
in the study of organisational creation of meaning
within the context of the organisational
communities. (Nobre, 2007) As eloquently Andersen
(2000: Nobre, 2007) said “Semiotics is ‘the
mathematics of the humanities’ in the sense that it
provides an abstract language covering a diversity of
special sign-usages (language, pictures, movies,
theatre, etc.).” The section title, ‘in hoc signo
vinces’, means “in this sign you will conquer”. Not
also it mentions the word ‘sign,’ as well – respecting
to Portuguese Myth and History – refers to a vision
had by the first Portuguese King on St. James day of
1139, just before an important battle, which he won
– enough said.
The solution for the majority of the generated
problems by the poor and dubious information
interpretation has to pass through comprehension,
implementation and use of Semiotics in every
Information Systems. Many semioticians defend its
instrumentalization in IS by some time now,
showing several times the multidisciplinar solutions
that Semiotics offers. Following, we present strong
viewpoints resulted from years of research among
many semioticians where they expose the lack of
interest from the technologic community.
Favareau (2002) declared that the use of
explicitly semiotic terminology “has been and
remains assiduously avoided in the practices and
explanations of traditional Western Science in
general.” Such exploration remains still yet to be
undertaken almost 320 years after Locke’s call for
the formulation of an explicit semiotic science of
representation – “the signs the mind makes use of.”
(Locke 1959: Favareau, 2002)
Kull (2003) assumed the opinion that “[t]he
modern age, as starting in the 17th century and being
characterized particularly via the formation of
experimental science together with the philosophy of
Descartes and Bacon, would be replaced by anything
that also replaces the experimental science, a strive
for technological progress or innovation, and
cartesianism – this can be semiotics.” Late 60s and
early 70s, during the birth of the General System
Theory by Bertalanffy (1968), a search for a
theoretical basis of biology led several biologists to
an idea of applying the principles of semiotics in
biology. Among them were C. H. Waddington (in
1972), who claimed that a paradigm of general
biology should be taken from general linguistics, T.
A. Sebeok (1969; 1972), who developed semiotic
models for analysis of animal communication, F. S.
Rothshild (1962), who formulated first principles of
biosemiotics, and R. Jakobson, who interpreted the
genetic phenomena in linguistic terms. (Kull, 2003)
Also, supporting the adoption of semiotics in IS,
Lederman (2007) asserted that “[a]dopting the terms
signal and transformation, taken from the general
systems and semiotics literature, and adding the
concept of action, [he has] proposed a common
terminology that legitimises the label information
system, [so] this approach makes a novel
contribution to the IS literature and will assist IS
researchers in classifying a wide variety of systems
as within or outside the information systems
category.” Thus, Lederman (2007) concluded that
ICEIS 2009 - International Conference on Enterprise Information Systems
using such “terminology from general systems
theory and the semiotics literature, it is possible to
find common ground between these systems and
traditional IS, thus making the term ‘information
system’ a legitimate label for such systems.”
But as Price (2005) wisely referred “[t]he actual
interpretation of the sign depends both on the
interpreter’s general sociolinguistic context (e.g.
societal and linguistic norms) and on their individual
circumstances (e.g. personal experience or
knowledge).” So with this condition, “the
correspondence between semiotics and information
quality can be clarified and the applicability of
semiotics to the formal definition of information
quality justified.” (Price, 2005) At this point we can
ask: “sign for what?” According to Collier (2003),
“[t]ypically, signs serve as vicariants, or stand-ins,
for the objects they represent within some context of
other objects and signs. In order to achieve this, we
need account of sign function, which requires an
account of functionality in general. Unless we have
built this into our account of information from the
beginning, either implicitly or explicitly, this takes
us beyond the theory of information systems.” We
might observe that adaptation, or development
alone, ensure only coordination, and neither gives a
basis for the information asymmetry that it is
required, unless there are further assumptions hidden
in our theories of these actions. If there are, Collier
(2003) suggested that “these assumptions go beyond
information theory, and take us into the science of
semiotics, or semiology.”
Closing this roll of personalities, we leave here a
Wersig’s (1996: Capurro, 2003) quote describing
one more prove of the status quo of current lack of
interest from the former appointed scholar
community: “The very notion of semiotics, which in
fact became one of the most important critiques of
too simple an application of information theory to
human communication, led to the insight that
Shannon’s mathematical theory was only a theory on
the syntactical level (relation of signs to signs), but
with no reference to the semantic (relations of signs
to meanings) and pragmatic (relation of signs to
humans) levels. In consequence, some attempts were
made to develop out of Shannon's theory a semantic
(Bar-Hillel and Carnap, 1953) or pragmatic (Yovits,
1975) information theory. But they remained in the
literature with no great success.” (Capurro, 2003)
Ramaprasad (1996), concerning the presented
relation levels, said that “[i]n terms of creating
knowledge, the semantic aspect of information is
more relevant as it focuses on conveyed meaning.
The syntactic aspect does not capture the importance
of information in the knowledge creation process.”
Complementing this view we share one from
Stamper (2000): “A semantic model provides a
conceptual design for an information system. It
represents the patterns of behaviour of an
organization, or the possible actions that an
organization can perform. However, there are other
norms, as specified in business rules and regulations.
These rules determine the conditions for the events
and actions. Therefore, during the process of
information modelling, norms have to be identified
by studying the organization’s behaviour and rules.”
Wrapping this semiotic characteristic Freeman
(2004) stated that “[s]emantics is the essence of
human communication. It concerns the manufacture
and use of symbols as representations to exchange
meanings.” Or at least faint perceptions of
comprehensive meanings. Goldkuhl (2000)
presented in his work a set of steps elaborated by
Stamper ([1994, 2000]: Goldkuhl, 2000), which was
meant to analyse “different aspects of information
systems as sign systems”, a semiotic ladder. It
consists of the following steps: physical world,
empirics, syntactics, semantics, pragmatics and
social world.
The mentioned expressions “assiduously
avoided”, “still yet to be undertaken”, “a novel
contribution” and “remained in the literature” are
some of the descriptions of the hard battle over 320
years of a flawed introduction of a obvious mental
and cognitive breakthrough philosophy: Semiotics.
What is information in organizational systems? As
Liu (2000) said “[i]n order to understand the nature
of information, one may have to find some
fundamental and primitive notions with which the
question can be investigated and explained.” We can
say that information is ‘carried’ by signs one way or
another, using a radio waves analogy. We could say
that a sign is a portrait of certain information but in a
reduced mode, almost like a hologram, i.e., it has the
important information in sight and the rest is
disclosed through perception and cognition. All that
simply because “the concept of a sign is such a
primitive notion that serves the purpose.” (Liu,
2000) By considering Stamper’s (1992: Liu, 2000)
opinion we also can state that “[i]nformation
processing and communication in an organisation
are realised by creating, passing and utilising signs.
SEMIOTICS - An Asset for Understanding Information Systems Communication
Therefore, understanding signs should contribute to
our understanding of information and information
Goldkuhl (2000) declared that “[t]here is an
urgent need to create a deeper understanding of
information systems in organizational settings. Their
special character is that they are formalized sign
systems and as such are used for human
communication.” The present imperfections of IT-
based information systems “give rise to a strong
imperative” for researchers in IS and other scientific
communities to build a better understanding of the
nature of such systems and their organizational use.
Hence, “[j]ust viewing an information system as a
technical black box having some social and
organizational effects is not enough. We must
understand information systems in a deeper sense
than as just one kind of technical artefact.”
(Goldkuhl, 2000)
The exposition of signs, mainly in the advertising
business, has to do with the way we do such
representation. And representation is considered to
make part of the core of the discipline of information
systems. Regarding this Shanks (1999) has
“explicitly adopted a realist ontological position and
a subjectivist epistemological position and provided
clear definitions for information system, data,
information, and meaning”, suggesting “that both
semiotics and ontology are two key areas of theory
that form the foundations of representation in
information systems.”
Respectable information is such that is reliable
and has content quality. Quality perception of the
information delivering and terminologies
comprehension it is a current necessity. The
childhood of information is data, but if its maturity
does not have good health it will develop into
unreliable and flawed knowledge. Facing such
difficulties a “semiotic approach for understanding
representation has been used to develop a framework
for understanding the quality of data models.”
(Shanks, 1999)
As Nobre (2007) stated “[s]emiotics is a
powerful theory for the study of human culture,
[nevertheless] semiotics can also be applied to other
contexts such as the study of information exchange
between animals in general. Even more intriguing is
the study of information exchange between
biological organisms, such as bacteria and other
micro-organisms.” But do not go no farther, just
remember that Hippocrates, founder of Western
Medical Science, “established ‘semeiotics’ as a
branch of medicine for the study of ‘symptoms’ – a
symptom being a ‘mark’ or ‘sign’ that stands for
something other than itself” as described by Sebeok.
(1976: Nobre, 2007) Not also discarding the
following Favareau’s (2002) observation where he
concludes that “[w]hat is missing from these
otherwise highly successful theories of biological
sign transmission, then, is a correspondingly
coherent theory of biological sign meaning.”
Resuming this section, we can affirm that a sign,
within an information system environment, could
pass (carry, transport) information from an emitter to
a receptor by a simple representation, easily and
effectively, in a symbolical language (pictorial or
textual) that both or others can perceptively
recognize and understand. The comprehension of
your ‘biologic’ environment in which we participate
is one of the first commitment steps that we have to
The present and later past times are not all dismal
for Semiotics. Some efforts have been made for its
implementation and introduction in the management
and practice of Information Systems, presenting
methodologies for solving problems for all kind of
systems. Several problems have origin in scope or
inconsistency of their own to which semiotics ought
to address. (Price, 2005) Few of which we will
indicate subsequently.
The full extent of semiotic properties of many
stimuli, agents and their combinations are not yet
known. Semiotics has to be better understood by
researchers and practitioners in order to manage the
organization more effectively. (Ramaprasad, 1996)
Therefore, the body of knowledge has to be built
further by the discipline of IS. Hence Cecez-
Kecmanovic (2002) claims that “[t]his body of
knowledge may draw from relevant theories and
models from other disciplines concerned with
similar phenomena in organizations but from
different perspectives (such as sociology, social
psychology, organisation theory, Semiotics,
linguistics and others). In this way IS professionals
may gain better understanding of human and social
issues and deal more competently with
organisational complexities.”
The reason for information being often ‘sticky’
and not free-flowing can be explained through a
semiotic perspective said Ramaprasad (1996).
Information value becomes “increasingly agent and
context-specific” as information flows up the
ICEIS 2009 - International Conference on Enterprise Information Systems
semiotic levels, from the morphological level to the
pragmatic level. Each iteration of the semiotic cycle
makes the level of specificity increase. What makes
it sticky is this specificity that acts as a barrier to
transference of information from one agent and
context to another. However by having common
semiotics across agents and contexts, and thus
reducing the barrier to transference, information can
be unstuck and made free-flowing. Ramaprasad
(1996) concluded that “factors such as
organizational culture can raise the barriers by
fostering a diversity of Semiotics or information
particularism, or lower the barriers by fostering
homogeneity or information globalism.”
According to Ramaprasad (1996) “knowledge of
the semiotics, tacitly and explicitly, plays a key role
in determining the effectiveness of the generation-
dissipation organization cycle. An organization is a
cause as well as a consequence of information
generation and dissipation. Consequently, the
effectiveness of an organization depends upon the
Semiotics of the stimuli and agents used for
information generation and dissipation. A Manager
who understands the stimuli, agents, and Semiotics –
tacitly or explicitly – will be more effective than one
who does not.” This last phrase is very explicit
related to the value incursion that IT-based systems
and others are loosing by not applying Semiotics to
problem solving and comprehension.
We recognize that some expressions that
appeared above – “manage the organization more
effectively”, “gain better understanding of human
and social issues”, “information can be unstuck” and
“[manage] more effective” – are descriptors of the
probable outcome of an introduction of Semiotics
into the decisive crossroads of IS.
Following we will describe three approaches that
some researchers tried to construct and apply in the
real world, and those are: MEASUR (Methods for
Eliciting, Analysing and Specifying Users’
Requirements), FRISCO Report (task group
FRamework of Information System COncepts
report) and FIS (Framework of Information
The MEASUR, also seen as a semiotic approach
to information systems, is a research programme
initiated in the 70s by Ronald Stamper. Its main
objective is to “investigate and deliver a set of
methods that can be used by researchers and
business users in their understanding, development,
management and use of information systems.” (Liu,
2000) In 1992, Stamper proposed a new paradigm
for MEASUR: the information field. As opposed to
information flow, “this information field paradigm
enables to us understand information from a new
perspective and therefore to develop information
systems more properly.” (Liu, 2000)
The FRISCO task group, founded by several
scientists of Western and Northern European
countries, approach to bridge the gap between
“reality” (our human simulation) and its modelling
concepts is based on Semiotics, i.e. the theory of
signs, their form (syntax), meaning (semantics) and
effect (pragmatics). Hesse (2002) advises that report
“should not be expected to provide the ‘ultimate
theory of Information Systems.’ However, it could
fill a significant gap in the IS foundation field,
which has been neglected in a period of technical
revolution and ad-hoc adoptions for fast-grown
applications. In particular, it might provide
managers and system designers with better insight
regarding the significance of “information” in the
organisational context and, hence, lead to more
effective cooperation of all groups involved in the
development and use of Information Systems.”
(Hesse, 2002)
In pursuit of an “effort to bridge the gap between
methods and technology,” Goossenaerts’ (2000)
paper presents “the result of a fundamental
investigation into the relationship between industrial
networks on the one hand, and the possible services
of ICT networks on the other hand. The result is a
Framework of Industrial Semiosis (FIS) which
applies and further elaborates the concepts of
semiotics in the context of industry.” And as
promising results there are “evidence of a widening
scope of the work of human resources, including
engineers and business engineers” where “relevant
knowledge is acquired and applied: to assess the
situation, to solve problems, to take right decisions
and perform the right actions.” (Goossenaerts, 2000)
In the end there are some work done and few
experimented methodologies but still there is no bet
from the professional side.
As Favareau (2002) clearly adverts in respect to the
role of the semiotician that it “is not to
“anthropomorphize” the individual activity of
communally mindless neurons but to understand
how the communal activity of individually mindless
neurons actively anthropomorphizes, in a very
“minded” fashion, us.” Therefore, a semiotician does
not want to control the way a human think, he wants
to present a freewill methodology where we can
orientate and guide its process of thinking and
SEMIOTICS - An Asset for Understanding Information Systems Communication
expresses its thoughts by an understandable and
fashioned way to others. As we saw in this article
there are conditions, long time alerts and some
studied methods with which we can begin to
introduce to professionals and their companies, to
professors and their schools. Semiotics it is not just
Literature to rest in the University shelves or tedious
theoretical deambulations, it is Art Thinking.
Semiotics should be seen as a form of Tikkun Olam.
As Sir Ken Robinson (2006) defended, and still
does, “[s]tudents with restless minds and bodies
far from being cultivated for their energy and
curiosity – are ignored or even stigmatized, with
terrible consequences. We are educating people out
of their creativity.” So, lets use Semiotics, and other
developments that other semioticians are doing in
this area, to “acknowledge multiple types of
intelligence.” (Robinson, 2006)
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ICEIS 2009 - International Conference on Enterprise Information Systems