Information Management vs. Information Systems vs. Computer Science: Which Will Best Support Your Career?

A student writes in a notebook next to an open laptop.

Information is an increasingly important and indispensable asset, and it's not hyperbole to say that information is the lifeblood of organizations. HR finds new opportunities to increase employee engagement using productivity data. Marketers refine campaigns based on target audience behavior. The finance department uses analytics to make projections. Outreach departments are able to identify underserved segments of their communities. And information sharing fuels collaboration across departments.

Some organizations assume their analysts or business intelligence specialists will take care of information management, but managing, organizing and improving access to the vast quantity of data organizations collect is a more complex and all consuming task. Many organizations are only just beginning to realize how much they neglect when no one manages the information life cycle. Currently, most only use about half of the data available to drive decision-making. The rest goes unused, and organizations still rely on gut feel rather than data to make 50% of business decisions.

However, most organizations now grasp how much they risk when the information life cycle isn't appropriately managed. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), demand for qualified information management and information systems managers is increasing. However, because information management is an emerging field, it's still rare to find professionals with high-level expertise.

The University of Washington Information School's Master of Science in Information Management (MSIM) is one of the only master's degree programs in the United States that focuses on how information management drives innovation and productivity while exploring the human and ethical implications of the ways we use information. The MSIM may be one of three graduate programs you're considering if you want to launch or advance in a strategic information management career. Master's degrees in information systems and computer science can also lead to information management career opportunities.

This guide compares and contrasts these academic pathways so you can select the graduate degree program that will best support your career goals.

What is information management?

The emerging field of information management is concerned mainly with the process used to collect, store, manage, distribute and preserve information. It also involves the valuation of data as an asset, the practical application of information to achieve organizational objectives and the strategic planning of information-focused activities. This includes how information is used and the social and ethical implications of its use. Information management has three primary components—people, technology and processes—which all have a role in maintaining accessibility, quality, security, efficiency and compliance. Strategically managing the interplay between people, technology and information is a complex undertaking and the core focus of the IM field of study.

The Information Management Body of Knowledge describes information management as encompassing six knowledge areas: business benefits, business information, business processes information, business strategy, information systems and information technology. While the term business is embedded in this framework, these knowledge areas are critical to all types of organizations public, private, and not-for-profit. The field also includes four process areas: business change, business operations, performance management and project management.

Who typically earns a master's of information management?

The answer varies across programs because institutions have unique curriculum and admissions requirements. The University of Washington MSIM, offered online, attracts early- and mid-career professionals who want to advance in their careers into managerial roles, deepen or augment their expertise, or change their career path into the IM field. Master's of information management candidates at the UW do not need an academic or professional background in technology or management— the MSIM program welcomes individuals from all backgrounds and supports a variety of career goals. While some students have computing, information systems, management, or data analytics experience, they might lack strategic leadership skills; others want to complement their undergraduate degree with a STEM credential or to switch careers entirely.

For the MSIM programs with a work experience requirement, intake occupations may include IT roles such as business analyst, database designer, software developer, product managers, information systems specialist, etc.. The degree also attracts folks from all types of occupations outside of IT such as functional area specialists and managers in marketing, finance, accounting, human resources, administration and social work. MSIM applicants work across all industry sectors such as health care, biotech, finance, marketing, agriculture, education, technology and commerce. Some work for nonprofit, research or public organizations.

What do master of information management candidates study?

MSIM programs provide students with a foundational, strategic knowledge of information management through interdisciplinary coursework covering technology, business and the humanities. MSIM programs generally offer concentrations or specializations, which vary based on the technical and managerial level of the coursework.

The UW MSIM program, offered online, has four courses in the core curriculum: Analytic Methods for Information Professionals, Foundations of Information Management, Management and Strategic Leadership, and Policy and Ethics in Information Management. The majority of the MSIM curriculum is customizable based on students' chosen specializations and interests.

As an online student at the UW Information School, you can create a schedule of coursework that supports your career goals when you complete any or all of the three in-demand MSIM specializations: Business Intelligence (BI), Data Science (DS) and Program/Product Management and Consulting (PPMC).

The BI specialization teaches you to assess and incorporate modern analytics and data warehousing toolsets to advance information management practices in your organization. The DS specialization teaches you computational and quantitative methods, tools and frameworks to analyze and derive insight from large-scale heterogeneous data. If you're an aspiring program manager, product manager or consultant, the PPMC specialization teaches you to lead organizations of all sizes and sectors in developing and managing strategic information-related initiatives.

The MSIM curriculum includes a critical strategic leadership component that prepares students of all backgrounds to step into leadership and management roles and/or gain technical IM competencies. The iSchool combines strategic leadership competencies with information management skills in one program to ensure graduates are well-rounded and see the bigger picture where data is concerned. Our graduates lead at every level of their organization.

An additional standout feature of the University of Washington's Master of Science in Information Management program is the focus on social consciousness. Our curriculum teaches students managerial and technical knowledge and their implications on equity, inclusion and social good. Students graduate equipped with the tools to make the world better.

What skills do MSIM programs develop?

Information management master's students develop a holistic perspective of information management and the necessary skills to advance organizational strategy across industries. The University of Washington's flexible MSIM curriculum provides opportunities for students to hone skills related to ethics and policy, information management, information technology, problem-solving, professionalism, social responsibility, strategic leadership and systems thinking.

Specialization courses develop analytical, managerial and baseline technician skills. Students in the BI track develop managerial and technical skills critical to the design and development of business intelligence systems including data modeling, data warehouse architecture, data visualization relational databases, extracting, transforming, and loading data (ETL); and online analytical processing (OLAP);. Students in the DS track learn skills related to computational and quantitative methods, exploratory data analysis, network analysis, practical foundations of data science, quantitative analysis of large datasets, R and Python, machine learning, scaling and distributing computing, and supervised and unsupervised machine learning. And students in the PPMC track learn skills related to analyzing and designing enterprise systems, change management and organizational transformation, creating success metrics, developing product and project value propositions, engaging stakeholders, leading project management teams, managing operational information-related initiatives, organizational problem solving, and systems and design thinking.

What careers does a Master of Science in Information Management support?

MSIM graduates have the analytical and management skills to lead complex, information-intensive initiatives. Common job titles for MSIM graduates generally fall into these categories: management, strategic oversight, technology management, analytics and consulting.

Managerial roles include manager of data scientist, project manager, program manager, product manager, technical product manager, IT service manager and manager of business systems. Strategic oversight and technology roles include Chief Technology Officer (CTO), Chief Information Officer (CIO), Director of Strategic Execution and Director of Strategic Technology Initiatives. Analytical and consulting roles include senior data analyst, business intelligence analyst, IT advisory risk consultant, senior information consultant, senior systems analyst, senior technical consultant and professional services consultant.

UW information management master's program graduates often see immediate professional benefits after earning their degrees that take the form of new responsibilities, raises and promotions or more prominent leadership roles in their organizations.

What is the outlook for information management careers?

The demand for qualified information management professionals is increasing. BLS data suggests employers will create jobs for information management professionals more quickly than the growth rate across all occupations. Keep in mind that this is a relatively new field, so information management roles may not have titles directly related to information management.

What is information systems?

Computer information systems field is concerned with integration of information technology to advance business goals. The field combines information management, information technology, computer science and business administration. Information systems professionals may have programming skills and do hands-on work but generally spend more time overseeing the ways people use technology to process and interpret information in service of organizational goals. Professionals in this discipline understand how to leverage technology to achieve business objectives but tend to focus more on the functionality of computer systems and business process efficiencies.

This discipline has some things in common with information management but is more concerned with the technology and processes involved in managing information in systems than with data itself and its utility. Information systems managers bridge the gap between people and the hardware and software systems that gather, process, store and distribute information. To understand how information systems managers work with information managers, consider the following example. Information systems specialists at a large online retailer might build systems to collect and analyze customer habits. Information management specialists then determine the best way to leverage that information to improve the customer experience and drive sales.

Master's in information systems programs teach aspiring and established information systems professionals to design, launch, maintain and manage complex information systems.

Who typically earns a master of information systems?

Master of Science in Information Systems (MSIS/MIS) candidates often have academic and professional backgrounds in business administration, IT, organizational development and computer science. Students enroll in information systems management programs because they want to work in technology management, network management, IT auditing, or IT risk management. Many MSIS candidates either already have the technical skills to design and implement information systems or have the managerial skills and need to augment them with an understanding of how to leverage technology. When they apply to graduate programs, they're looking for credentials that will help them advance into management roles that require the knowledge of system integration.

What do master of information systems students study?

MSIS students study elements of computer science, information management and technology strategy development. Like MSIM programs, information systems master's programs tend to be concentration-based. Common specialization areas include cloud architecture, data analytics, innovation management, digital transformation health informatics, human-computer interaction, IT management, learning technology and project management. Core coursework in these master's programs covers data analytics, database management, information security, information technology strategy, network administration, enterprise systems, virtualization and cloud computing.

Some MSIS programs also teach business fundamentals, so graduates understand the business priorities that drive technology requirements and the technical challenges organizations face.

What skills do MSIS programs develop?

Master of information systems programs teach skills related to business problem-solving, change management and innovation, communication, people management, performance management, project management, software management, system security and systems design. Many programs also emphasize skills related to teamwork and collaboration to prepare students from technical backgrounds to step into roles that involve interfacing with various stakeholders and people management.

What careers can a Master of Science in Information Systems support?

MSIS programs prepare students to transition into technology-focused management roles such as Chief Technology Officer, enterprise architecture manager, information security analyst, information systems analyst, information systems director, information systems manager and virtual systems architect. Some jobs for master's in information systems graduates involve hands-on technical work, while others include people management and oversight of teams doing technological work.

What is the outlook for information systems careers?

The BLS includes information systems professionals when assessing computer and information technology careers, which means growth in this discipline will likely mirror growth in information management. According to BLS predictions, employers will create more than 480,000 new jobs for information systems managers, information technology managers and IT project managers over the next 10 years.

What is computer science?

Computer science is a broad discipline concerned with digital technology and the systems governing it. It encompasses numerous sub-disciplines related to software, hardware, theory and digital technology applications. Because this discipline has so many branches, it is tough to sum up what computer science professionals do in just a few sentences. Some people who study computer science become computer research scientists. Many more become software engineers, artificial intelligence specialists, blockchain engineers, cybersecurity specialists, cloud engineers or systems analysts.

Computer science jobs tend to be highly technical. While the business applications of computer science are myriad, a divide exists between tech-focused teams and the teams that apply technology to business challenges. That's why some Master of Science in Computer Science (MSCS) programs cover technology management and the business applications of technology. Still, most computer science master's curricula focus on practical computer science skills.

Who typically earns a master's in computer science?

MSCS programs attract applicants with academic and professional backgrounds in information technology, computer science, electrical engineering, cybersecurity and other technical disciplines. Some students enroll in computer science master's programs to explore new career paths in technology, and there are MSCS programs that welcome non-CS majors. Feelings of career stagnation often motivate programmers and web developers to pursue graduate-level education. Other technology professionals hope earning a master's in computer science will help them transition into more senior positions.

What do master's in computer science students study?

Computer science degree programs tend to be concentration-based, which means there's no typical MSCS curriculum. Core courses in computer science master's programs may cover advanced computer science fundamentals or focus exclusively on one branch of the discipline, such as artificial intelligence or computer vision. Classes in generalist MSCS programs often touch on algorithm design and analysis, computational theory, computer architecture, data compiling and network protocols, data warehousing and storage, database systems design, information science, network architecture, network security, operating system analysis and design, programming paradigms and software engineering.

Students in concentration-based programs focus their studies on areas of specialization such as artificial intelligence, cognitive computing, distributed systems, game development, graphics and visualization, human-computer interaction, machine learning, natural language processing, operating systems or robotics.

What skills do MSCS programs develop?

Computer science master's programs teach leading-edge technical skills and transferable hybrid skills that are becoming more valuable as automation affects more computing processes. MSCS candidates hone their software engineering skills, programming skills, analytical skills, code management skills and skills related to automation and scalability. Surprisingly, many MSCS programs also teach communication skills, problem-solving skills, intellectual flexibility and other managerial skills.

What careers can a Master of Science in Computer Science support?

MSCS holders advance into some of the highest-paid positions in computer science — most of which are in management. They include Chief Technology Officer, information technology director, principal software engineer, senior engineering manager, senior solutions architect, software engineering director, software engineering manager and vice president of engineering. Computer science master's program graduates can also pivot into hands-on roles in high-growth areas of computer science such as cloud computing and AI engineering or emerging areas of computing such as edge computing or computational perception.

What is the outlook for computer science careers?

Demand for computer science professionals is high across computing and information technology fields but varies significantly by subfield. According to the BLS, employers will create more than 400,000 new jobs in software development, analysis and testing over the next 10 years. Meanwhile, database administration and architecture, computer engineering and systems analysis jobs will grow more slowly.

Information management, information systems and computer science: similarities and differences

Computer science is the outlier in this trio of academic and professional disciplines. In general, information management and management information systems are concerned with questions related to organizational outcomes and responsibility. Information managers are concerned with defining the problem and designing its solution, computer science is concerned with building the solution.

All three overlap technologically, but computer science is primarily concerned with developing and enhancing software and digitally-driven hardware. In contrast, information management and information systems deal with the strategic application of digital technologies.

Meanwhile, the dividing line between information management and information systems is anything but straightforward. Some sources treat information systems as a subdiscipline of information management focused on the software and hardware used to collect, store, process and analyze information in business settings.

What is clear is that information management and information systems are the more closely related disciplines. Information systems are concerned with design and implementation of information technology and transformation of business processes in the service of business objectives. Information management encompasses the processes and resources (technical and human) involved in supporting all activities within the information lifecycle to turn data into insights to solve organizational problems, support decision making, and transform all types of organizations and society.

How do I know which degree is right for me?

After reading this far, you probably have some idea which academic pathway will support your career goals. How you answer this question will depend on your bachelor's degree major, work experience and what you hope to gain by pursuing a computer science, information systems or information management degree.

Computer science may be the best fit if you have a tech background and you're primarily interested in the algorithms and software that power information management technologies. If you're more interested in applying information technology platforms to meet organizational objectives, you may get more from an information systems master's program. But if you want to harness the power of technology and systems thinking to solve organizational challenges and critically analyze processes across all areas of the information landscape, you belong in an information management master's program.

Programs such as the iSchool MSIM, offered online, teach information leadership holistically, bridging the gap between the technological systems involved in information management and the people who work with that information. The University of Washington takes a multidisciplinary approach to information management that teaches aspiring leaders how to use information as a tool to drive positive social and organizational change.

The UW's MSIM program offers three degree path options so you can tailor the program to your needs. Depending on where you are in your career, you can choose from the Mid-Career, Early-Career and Early-Career Accelerated tracks to prepare for strategic leadership, develop technical skills or both. If you're an MSIM candidate in the online program, you can pursue a combination of specializations that supports your career goals and prepares you to implement equitable information management strategies and take the information field in a new direction.

Attend an upcoming information session to learn more about the University of Washington's Master of Science in Information Management, offered online, and the application deadlines. You can apply today.