This research commentary proposes a way to make progress in the IS discipline’s inconclusive discussion about the nature and role of theory. In some ways, the creation and testing of theory seems to be the primary goal of IS research. Despite that, there are persistent questions whether theory has become a fetish in the IS discipline and whether the routinized production and testing of mid-range theories is little more than an uninspired script that reduces the value and interest of IS research. This paper reframes the discussion around the idea of ‘conceptual artifact’ that has been discussed widely in educational psychology for over a decade. Conceptual artifacts are abstract knowledge objects that can be produced, tested and improved. This paper recognizes the value of both abstract knowledge (conceptual artifacts) and non-abstract knowledge. It explains that theorizing produces, evaluates or improves useful conceptual artifacts that may or may not be theories. It validates four premises related to conceptual artifacts by showing that theorizing related to work system theory created or used many different types of conceptual artifacts. It identifies nine criteria for evaluating conceptual artifacts and shows that some of them differ from typical criteria for evaluating Gregor Type IV theories. As a whole, it argues that that privileging theory over other types of conceptual artifacts may not be beneficial in pursuing the research questions that the IS discipline needs to study.
Alter, Steven, "Nothing is more practical than a good conceptual artifact... which may be a theory, framework, model, metaphor, paradigm or perhaps some other abstraction" (2017). Business Analytics and Information Systems. 85.