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The evolution of information systems started with the advent of computers into the business segment. Initially the computer systems and software were used in the office automation process such as reducing the lot of paper work in accounting, payroll processing, billing systems etc (Curtis and Cobham, 2008). As these data processing increased much of the data soon found themselves into the computer systems and then these got processed in different ways. Management then were able to get information quickly than the old paper base systems. This created the systems where management reporting was the key and the information processing and digesting became the major part of information systems in the 1960s to 1970s (Boddy, Boonstra, and Kennedy, 2005). In the 1970s to the 1980s came along the decisions support systems which performed complex analysis of the data, such as querying and reporting and enables decision support systems (Curtis and Cobham, 2008). With the popularity of desk top computers and the advent of internet technology the information systems which were till then internal to the company began to reach the users (Laudon and Laudon, 2004).
Source - (Curtis and Cobham, 2008) - Evolution of information systems.
Business in today's world need to remain highly competitive and in order to do so they have formulated strategies and plans for their growth (Curtis and Cobham, 2008; Rainer and Cegielski, 2009). Each individual department needs to form strategies according to the overall organisational strategy and work towards it. But in some cases at least some of the departmental objectives may run counter to other departments (Parson and Oja, 2008). Giving a simple example if the finance department objective is to collect the payment from every customer within a specific time period this may be countering the marketing or the sales department objective to get maximum sales from customers which would entail them to give longer credit periods to the customer (Curtis and Cobham, 2008).
The growth in the information systems used in organisation over the years was due to several factors. Cost is the major factor among these as the data already available in the system is only to be turned into useful information and the marginal cost of this conversion is very less (Curtis and Cobham, 2008). The quickness of the standard information when required in predetermined formats is another reason for the growth. Management is able to quickly get the reports from different parts of the company once it is entered into a centralised information system other than waiting for it to be delivered to them from different departments or different geographies (Stair, Reynolds and Reynolds, 2008). Most of the management information systems have developed as a collection of subsystems or the integration of the systems in different departments. It is indeed fortunate that from the early stages of development of the systems the developers presumed the design to be integrated but with the various subsystems from the different departments forming the subsets (Curtis and Cobham, 2008).
The Indian railway is Asia's largest and the world's second largest rail network under single management. It covers most of the rugged terrain of the country with tracks covering a distance of 60,000 kilometres has 300 railway yards and seven hundred repair shops (Kazmi, 2008). The rolling stock of the railways has over 7000 locomotives, more than 37,000 coaches and 222 million freight wagons (Banerjee, 1992). It has seen tremendous growth through out the years but the Indian railways needs improvement in many areas such as upgrading the information technology (Banerjee, 1992), improving the quality of services to fend off the competition from the low cost airlines and also the road freight carriers (Kazmi, 2008).
The Indian railways had early on realised the importance of information technology to improve its operations, the service quality, delivering ease of service to the customers and improving the working conditions of its employees (Banerjee, 1992). The establishment realised the potential of the information systems for their huge operations nationwide in freight and passenger traffic (CRIS, 2010). The railway management established the Centre for Railway Information Systems (CRIS) in 1986 as a separate independent body for all information technology activities especially for the design and implementation of Freight Operations Information Systems (FOIS) (Banerjee, 1992; CRIS, 2010). CRIS provides consulting and IT services to Indian Railways from conceptual stage, realisation of the technology to implementation driven business transformation initiatives (CRIS, 2010).
Freight movement is the biggest revenue generating operation for the Indian railways but as the competition of road traffic the railways found its share of the traffic decreasing due to outdated technologies and poor service levels to customers. In order beef up its operational qualities the railways decided to implement the freight operations Information systems (FOIS) (Banerjee, 1992). The computerisation of the entire passenger ticketing system through an integrated network was undertaken by the CRIS with great success as the distinct nature of the operations of the Indian railways from the foreign operators made the possibility of purchasing a ready to operate system quite unfeasible (Banerjee, 1992). The CRIS then took up the challenge of developing the passenger reservation system with collaboration with CMC.
The above is a small sketch of the advances the Indian railways had done in the sphere of information systems in the last four decades. The following paragraphs will detail how these integrated information systems has performed, whether they were able to live up to the standards of modern information systems and technologies and whether they improved the systems and made the operations efficient.
Facilitate decision making at the three tiers of management
Information systems which provide support to the management by integrating the company data, the rules for decision making, analytical tools and models for forecasting and planning are commonly called decision support systems (Bocij, Greasley and Hickie, 2008). Mainly decision making happens at three levels of management. The topmost level with strategic decisions whose span of area will be organisation wide and their effects will be long term in nature. Such decisions require unstructured information both within and outside the organisation. Examples of the decisions of strategic nature are new market entries, new product developments; take over of other companies, acquisitions, mergers, joint ventures etc. Such decisions require the information needs to flow in on as requested basis and there aren't many such systems which can combine internal information with external information. The sources of external information could be stock market data, government budgets, policies, economic data etc.
The second level of decision making are in the middle level of a company with managers planning and scheduling their tasks and activities for a span of about 6 months to a year. Most of these tactical decisions are arising from the organisations overall objectives set by the top most level. Hence the information from the topmost level such as organisational objectives in increasing the sales, capturing certain percentage of the market or rolling out a specific product within certain time frame etc are planned in the middle level and they make decisions to initiate these. The information needs of middle level managers are mainly from within the organisation as to the capacity of the company, the areas of expertise, the previous production figures etc. The third level of decision making are highly concentrated and they invariably only require internal information as most of their decisions are effective in the immediate future. The daily, weekly or monthly planning schedules of each company as per the guidelines given to each department are carried out by the bottom most level of management. Their information requirements are highly structured.
The Indian railways have implemented the freight operations information systems and the passenger ticketing systems. These are used by the lowest level of decision makers namely the station masters, managers and heads in other departments in the stations to allocate resources such as coaches, catering facilities, loading and unloading, staffing etc. The information systems here are highly helpful to the management in dealing with the above said decisions. The information required is highly structured. In the middle levels such as zonal and regional offices the decisions such as resource allocations, new plans for up gradation of facilities, improvement works, track systems etc can be laid out. Such types of decisions require the information from within the organisation such as the passenger traffic over a period of time, freight traffic, volumes etc. At the topmost levels of the railway management which goes all the way up to the union minister for central railways the information systems helps in the making of the railway budget, planning for the next year on resource allocation, forecasting the resource requirements and planning the same. Although the present structure and the complexity of the information systems helps mostly only the bottom level and the middle level decision making this is in tune with the theory as most of the high level decision making require a high number of outside information such as competitors data, market conditions, economic considerations etc
Provide information across various departments
The railways is a central government undertaking with a full budget presented in the parliament of India each year for the revenues and investments it is going to make (Kazmi, 2008). The present information systems implemented in the Indian railways are used mainly to make the work simpler for the railway staff and also to make it more systematic and simple for the passengers and the freight operations. By computerising the ticketing system the advantages are that the passengers can now book advance tickets from any destination to any destination from any station. This has improved the service delivery of the railways. More usefully ticketing fraud and malpractices has been controlled with the new systems. As the system is integrated the accounting is simpler and centralised hence the finance and accounting departments now operate with much efficiency as they receive all the data and does not need to wait for the paper reports from each zone or region or station. The operations departments work as been greatly enhanced as they can now concentrate more on making the operation of the train's network more efficient with the passenger and freight traffic and volume data at their disposal. The operations department is responsible for the allocation of resources such as coaches, locomotives, repairs and maintenance etc. With the implementation of the information systems there is better availability of data to all departments and to all field locations such as stations, loading stations, zonal and regional offices. The wider range of information with real time functionality is providing for the better operational management in to planning, direction, control of freight operations, scheduling and turnaround of wagons and good utilisation of the wagons and locomotives.
Serve as efficient means for managing business processes
Managing the operations and making the business process efficient has been the main objective of the implementation of the information systems in the Indian railways. The railway is considered as India's largest employer with a work force of 1.4 million and runs more than 11,000 trains daily (Kazmi, 2008). Freight movement is the biggest money spinner for the Indian railways and it should be said that the passenger fares are kept subsidised from the income through freight operations of the railways (Banerjee, 1992). But as the road network caught up in the 1980s the railways found its share of the traffic decreasing due to outdated technologies and poor service levels to customers. In order beef up its operational qualities the railways decided to implement the freight operations Information systems (FOIS) (Banerjee, 1992).
After the freight operations the railways tackled the passenger reservations system through computerisation of the entire network (CRIS, 2010). Various deliberations took place and it was established that the distinct nature of the operations of the Indian railways from the foreign operators made the possibility of purchasing a ready to operate system quite unfeasible (Banerjee, 1992). The CRIS then took up the challenge of developing the passenger reservation system with collaboration with CMC.
The various challenges in developing the system was the complexity of the operations with 6 types of train services, 7 classes of travel, seventy concessions for passengers, twenty five types of quotas, sixty six types of coach layouts, complicated rules for break journey, refunds, modifications, cancellations, routing, fare structure and major change in technology, work environment, work culture in India (Banerjee, 1992; CRIS, 2010).
The major benefits accrued to the railways through the computerisation of the passenger ticketing system were the reduction of the transaction times, centralising the control, monitoring, evaluation and accounting, enabling the advance booking and cancellation from any station to any other stations and simplifying structures and the databases (SYBASE, 2010).
The computerisation of the many systems was a necessity for an organisation such as the mighty railways. Even though the visualisation of the systems and procedures started very early almost 5 decades back, the implementation has lagged behind woefully. This is typical of the Indian bureaucratic setup and procedures as they are known to have absolutely dismal record in managing the implementation of many programs and projects in every area. The two biggest integrated information systems implemented are the freight operations information systems and the passenger ticketing system. The freight operation system monitors the arrivals of cargo with pointing the details of freight trains in a computerised map. The details of the rolling stock, rakes, wagons coaches etc in various yards and stations their utilisation has been tracking with much greater efficiency. But there are many grey areas in both the systems especially in the freight operations systems.
Currently the Freight operations information system is operating at a high level i.e. only the bulk movement of goods is being reported to the customers. The railways mainly operate in the bulk movement of materials such as cement, coal, iron ore etc and there are huge contracts agreed with the big companies for their transactions. These companies are benefitted as they are the biggest customers but the smaller consignments which do not amount to entire wagon loads and piece meal traffic is not reported in the same fashion. Hence the freight operation systems need to go more in depth towards making operational the smaller details of the operations such as movement of piece meal traffic and making such information available to the customers as well.
At the moment the tracking of the materials send on the trains in different areas is through individual stations and manually fed into the system. The new tracking technology using the global positioning systems can be integrated into the current information systems such that the manual entering of the information could be avoided. This could also mean that the information can be in real time and the tracking at different stations with the inevitable confusion so produced can be avoided. This would mean that the information is seamlessly integrated in to the system with less manual entry and the operational requirements of planning and scheduling of the wagons by the railway.
The present management information systems used by the railways whether on freight operations or on passenger ticketing system just provides the information for the ease of use, integration of the areas and the accounting purposes. There is at present little evidence to suggest that the data generated is used for analysing the trends, making statistical reports and thus using this information for top level management decisions for efficiently making long term strategic decisions. If the information in the systems is coupled with data ware housing and data analysis modules to provide for trends and analytical reports on a timely basisi to provide for the top management especially the ministries and the higher level officials they will be able to make better use of these information. As seen earlier in the review of literature the decision making at the top most level is highly unstructured and requires more external data but in the case of Indian railways especially the ministry, having reasonably well structured data analysis and trends can make their decision making and budgeting to better levels. This becomes even more the case as much external information can be coupled into the system from the various other ministries in the government. Many other government ministries have their own data analysis and information available and these analysis can be automatically fed into the systems in the railways so that external as well as internal data is available to the top levels of railway management.
At the moment there is web enabled links
WEB Enabled reports: It is contemplated to give web access to Railways customers for obtaining information regarding pipeline of their incoming outgoing rakes, details of Closed Circuit rakes and tracking of interplant movements transfers.