September 07, 2009
Among the definitions I have already ventured (see The Truth about Content) is one for information that firmly declares that information is an action, an act of communication. By contrast, content is defined as potential information, the latent asset that is planned, created and managed with the view to publishing high quality information in response to specific needs. With this distinction made, it is clear that there will be important differences between how we manage content and how we manage information – although it is equally clear that the two are inextricably related. With information management we find that we are looking at pathways of communication and the accrual of transactional events that string together to form webs of connection between events and their transactional participants.
With the notion at hand that information is transactional, what then do we undertake when we set out to manage information? To what end do we manage something that, technically speaking, has already happened and has become a snapshot of a specific transaction at a specific point in historical time? What operational goals will investments in information management services achieve and how will these goals be articulated to justify those investments? How successful have organizations typically been in managing their information? What do people mean when they speak of the intrinsic value of information?
The pursuit of answers to these questions in fact receives a lot of attention within organizations and within the information technology industry. In the business media and even in the popular press, phrases such as information overload and information glut are common refrains. Many are quick to declare that information is an institutional asset while the more legally-minded will be just as quick to think of retained information as a potential liability.
It is not without good reason that content management (see On the Management of Content) is usually seen as a specialized sub-domain of information management and this may not be a bad way to see it. Content management environments are typically deployed to formalize and at least in some ways automate the production of high quality information products for which an organization is responsible and for which it will, corporately, be held accountable.
When we step back, we can all essentially agree that managing information is a highly visible challenge – for organizations and even for each of us individually. While I usually bristle at broad epithets being applied to any historical period, and especially to the present, I myself must concede that there is something about the present that merits a name such as the information age. Most organizations with which I deal are not only awash in information but literally submerged in it and so much so that the information flows that constantly move amongst people become invisible although their effects can still be felt.
At the root of the challenges surrounding information management are three factors: volume, variety and velocity. This pretty much sums things up as we survey the sea of information transactions that are spawned each day. The volume is a given, as anyone with an email inbox knows all too well. Variety is also pretty hard to miss – with messages flying by that range from trivial notifications and noxious spam through to mission-critical instructions and genuinely important advisories. Variety is also caught up in sources with some being specific and authoritative while others being generic and questionable. There are other measures of variety that could be catalogued as well. And then there is velocity, which comes with the broadening array of media channels by which information makes its way between people. Velocity also picks up something else as well – the fact that the pace of business seems to be constantly accelerating and messages received more and more seem to call for immediate treatment. Of course, the larger the organization, and the wider the sphere in which it operates, the greater the amplitude that will be seen on each of these scales.
With these factors driving the challenges of information management, we see that there appear to be four main dimensions to information management that require attention.
Here the effort is directed towards ensuring that people have access to the information that they need to perform their tasks and that the information they produce is expeditiously used within the organization to ensure satisfactory results. Although this ultimately entails a lot of “plumbing”, as in the basic elements of information technology infrastructure from security to support for mobile devices, there is also a wide latitude here for imaginative thinking about the necessary and natural communication channels that bind an organization together and with its key stakeholders, and how these channels should really inform the structural evolution of that organization. By ensuring that information transactions can be facilitated efficiently and that high priority communication pathways are continuously improved, organizations can make strides towards capitalizing on the value of information, or more correctly the value of effective information transactions.
Many people whose job title explicitly includes the phrase “information management” will usually be primarily focused on the accountability side of the information management endeavour. As information is transactional and as it accumulates over time as a record of exchanges among people, of the decisions they make and actions they take, information becomes a critically important consideration in determining accountability for key events. In the last few years, accountability has been growing steadily in public profile, and for good reason, and this has added renewed impetus to the management of information records. It is always interesting to encounter organizations that have developed creative coping strategies in their information practices to help them deal with these new realities. One of my favourites is the “pens-down meeting” where crucial guidance is given with the proviso that no written record be made of the instructions. Another popular one is the heavy use of post-it notes to handle annotations so that these secondary transactions can be carefully removed once they have served their purpose. On the more legitimate side, there is the growing awareness that information in an electronic form is more mobile and potentially more persistent than its hardcopy predecessors and that new management and discovery tools are needed to help corral information into an organized structure that permits longer term control and even orderly disposition.
Among the more notable qualities of information is the fact that it accumulates and that over time this body of transactional records can become an asset in and of itself. Specifically, the accumulating body of information can be subjected to retrospective analysis and this, in turn, can give rise to insights into the nature of the business being conducted and illuminate patterns and trends that might otherwise escape notice. Certain types of information, for example, will exhibit recurrent patterns that trace out connections between different parts of the organization and that may be associated with clusters of expertise and expense (e.g., such as is associated with technical communications supporting complex engineered products). Other types of information will be found to receive high levels of exposure within important audiences and thus be deemed worthy of heightened investment. These types of inquiries often lead to the formalization of the information production processes and this showcases where content management usually enters the picture.
Information transactions are frequently, indeed usually, produced in the heat of the moment, as it were, and enter the stream of business events to become associated with recipients, their responses, and the outcomes arising from any actions taken as a result of the information exchanges. In being produced in such specific circumstances, the information transactions themselves become wedded to the context in which they were framed. This, however, does not negate the fact that information transactions often contain useful insights or observations that can be extracted and reused in other contexts, or abstracted to produce more general formulations that can be used in many contexts. Adaptation entails finding useful content from within the sea of information produced by an organization and reusing or repurposing that content in new contexts. Frequently, one of the background justifications for introducing search technologies is to help people find relevant information so as to reuse, and therefore avoid recreating, content that has been produced amid past business experiences. There are in fact several tools and techniques that must be deployed in unison in order to put into place what we might call an organizational learning process but at its root it turns on finding valuable content within historical information transactions and then recasting it into a form suitable for long term reuse (effectively harvesting, or mining, content assets from past information transactions).
These four dimensions mark out a rather daunting range of activities. As with any summary, the danger here is that the amount of real work and ingenuity associated with making progress on any one of these fronts will be obscured. Throwing caution to the wind, we can continue on this rampage of summation and identify three main considerations that should be borne in mind when according attention to each of the four aspects of information management.
Prioritization is Key
Not all information or all information transaction channels are equally important or equally tractable so it is critical that priorities for investment and improvement be set. A failure to prioritize will lead to a failure to exhibit any tangible progress and in most organizations this is a recipe for annihilation. More importantly, a failure to tangibly improve how information transactions are handled in and around the core functions of a business will lead, inevitably, to the organization becoming noncompetitive or irrelevant.
Automation is Important
Where volume, variety and velocity are factors, as they are in information management, then the intelligent use of technology becomes essential. The best of intentions and even exemplary practices will quickly succumb if they are not implemented using automation techniques that can match the volume, variety and velocity being exhibited. This truism is often used, nefariously, to promote silver-bullet solutions the type of which executive management seems always willing to believe in. The better response is to explore and validate automation techniques and deployment strategies that can address the information challenges being encountered and that can do so without prohibitive expense.
Usefulness is Paramount
All too many investments in information management, or for that matter content management deployed in the service of information management, are made with a blithe disregard for the people creating the information or using it. Often, for example, an accountability concern among senior management will gain such momentum that steps are taken that attempt, in effect, to awaken the inner archivist in every person in the organization. It sounds ludicrous, in large part because it is, but it is remarkable how regularly this is attempted. Not surprisingly, experience quickly proves that very few people harbour secret desires to become an archivist. As a counterpoint to this impracticality, there are strategies for information management that tend to work and work well. Foremost among these is the injunction that any investment in information management should help specific groups of people do their jobs better, and more easily, in addition to realizing any larger corporate objectives.
This leads us to what seems like a good place to stop - the Iron Law of Information Management:
Be useful or you are not managing anything!
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