Part 1: The Discipline
Discipline: “branch of instruction” (the field).
Discipline: “methods or rules for conduct” (the rules).
Discipline: “training of the mind” (the self).
From cathedrals to communication
Early barter economies were not overly concerned with standards. Goods were exchanged for assumed, but variable equal values. Eight chickens might have been worth 25 loaves of bread one day and 22 the next. But barter practices broke down when goods came to be exchanged for a standard symbol of value. Monetary systems made it necessary to have consistent weights and measures that could be equated to an specified amount of money. The emergence of international and world economies forced the introduction of multinational standards for weights and measures, expressed in various currencies.
Of course standards are not limited to commerce. But the critical nature of standards was recognized early on by those trades and industries where fixed values, formulas and performance were essential. Guilds provided a system for training, protection, control and development of various skills. They also established a body of standard, “scientific” knowledge that became part of the stock in trade of the merchant and the construction and transportation industries. The great cathedrals of Europe could not have been constructed without a firmly established body of knowledge about construction techniques and material performance.
Some standards were rationally based and rigorously applied. Load limits and the size of a sail were scientifically derived and directly related to materials, skill of workers, use and type of construction. But local, small units manufactures such as building houses, roads, swords and plows one used available materials and personal preferences, and the definition of a “foot” or “pound” might well have varied between townships. Such differences probably did not matter a whole lot.
The industrial age and its new processes introduced many standards in construction and manufacturing. They would soon migrate across national boundaries. Standards and measures became enshrined in national and international codes to specify everything from the width of a doorway to the weight of a number 3 nail. In more recent times we work toward international accords in everything from liquid volumes to the definition of “nutrition” and “hunger”.
Without doubt there is wide support for standardization. One can use any electrical outlet in North America to run one’s toaster. And one can drive on any highway in the same area with the same traffic control symbols, pavement markings and overpass height limits. And when someone buys a food product they want to know that it meets rigid health codes. All of this information needs to be readily available and readily understandable by all manner of officials, workers and consumers. Commerce today would be impossible without all this. And a good deal of this commerce and the underlying information transfer occurs by electronic means.
Building cathedrals was never easy. But the body of relevant information and knowledge was at hand, accessible, and transferred in very orderly, unambiguous ways. The parties to a transaction or joint activity were known to each other: as were their attitudes, biases, gestures and personal goals. A cathedral construction crew understood its context, purposes and processes very well. The consequences of misunderstanding were evident to all.
Commercial and social “globalization”, the introduction of technology into the work place and the advent of impersonal corporations and institutions has meant that there is now a certain “arms length” in much of what we do. A merchant may indeed know none of her customers on sight. A building contractor could, conceivably, never be physically present at any time during a building’s construction. If one is dealing with tangible activities, “real” people and standardized (defined and understood) activities there is of course an information management challenge. People need to know that what they are receiving is valid, and what they are sending is being received and understood. In an intangible environment, the challenges are monumentally greater. Two organizational analysts may converse over electronic channels discussing one “model” or another, and may do an excellent job of it. But a CEO who transmits a pictorial mission statement to all of his employees electronically may not be so successful unless there is a shared vision and well institutionalized terminology and concepts.
Just a few short years ago the filing cabinet was the office icon. Files and their folders were equated with bureaucracy. Business practices were based on “backgrounds and trails”. Sequencing was important as was circulation. Files moved ponderously, but with grave certainty, around office “networks”, though we then called them distribution lists.
The personal computer, new work environments, changing businesses and cultures and an almost absurd rate of corporate change and employee turnover has jettisoned most of this. A lot of what we do today is “on the fly”. Rather than ensuring that the decision being made is “consistent with past practice and not precedent setting” (unless we intend it so), a large proportion of today’s business decisions are in no defined context, unprecedented, and precedent setting if they lodge themselves in an accessible medium and achieve an air of authority. Unfortunately corporate information management systems are at such an appalling level that there will not be then, or maybe not until much later any recording of the event anyway. Managers, and the workers involved for that matter, may never know whether the new way of dealing with an event was right, wrong, or simply irrelevant.
Consider that this is the “knowledge age” – with “knowledge workers” dealing not in hard copy and cathedral construction, but with ideas. They use light speed information transmission, making corporate decisions on a global platform. Mistakes, when they happen, can have wide-reaching repercussions. Given that a near exact set of circumstances can often be concluded in very different ways simply because events are treated as single occurrences without any guidance available or deemed necessary means that there are operating costs that are unseen and unnoticed, though likely considerable.
Cathedrals last centuries because what was needed to be known was known. Load bearing capacities, span allowances, wood and stone deterioration rates, weather patters, spoil conditions, and on and on was the data in trade. Decisions were informed. Stakeholders were consulted and involved as needed. The client was always on site, making sure that what she wanted she got. The architect and chief builder raged at one another as deals were cut and compromises made. At the end of all this we had a structure that stands the test of time.
Few understand that we have similar needs for certainty in an intangible economy. These needs are of a different kind but they have equal, or really greater importance (if we measure value on potential for loss, for example). Have we made as much progress in achieving consistency and accuracy in our language as we have in our physical arts? Have we developed a body of knowledge about information: what it is, where it is, how to manage and access it, how to distribute it, how to define and measure it?
Have we positioned ourselves so that we might move on from an isolated transaction way of doing business to one where staff intervene when essential, and in a meaningful way?
Changes and Challenges in the Workplace and in Information Management Technology
It would be a serious understatement to say that skills and practices for managing organizational information have not kept pace with technology change in the workplace. In the days of typewriters and carbon copies, employees had strict disciplines for dating, labeling, distribution, filing and disposal. In an electronic world, rules, where they exist, are very different.
Document creation and distribution in a paper-based environment followed standardized routines usually based on the organizational hierarchy. There were usually defined subjects for memos, letters and files; a defined file numbering system; and established protocols for entering date and time, location of origin, structure of headers and so on. Interoffice memos usually indicated the name and title of both originator and recipient. Organizing, archiving and retrieving information when such rules are in place is a minor difficulty. Main frame systems, when they became commonplace in the paper-based office, reflected this rigidity. System data entry was highly standardized and formal.
With the drift from main frame systems to desktop p.c.’s, the empowerment of the work force and the widening of information distribution loops, employees lost sight of the importance of standards and conventions. Today, in spite of continual management effort, few organizations have enterprise standards for handling routine as well as official correspondence and other records. Though many organizations in all sectors have policies on the management of information holdings and information management standards (such as date conventions for example) they are infrequently adhered to. Few employees use file classifications routinely at the document creation stage and file naming is almost completely ad hoc.
At the same time there have been significant losses in appreciation of both background and context when new information was being created. Pace of work was certainly a factor in the lessened sense of importance of historical subject files and “context” but the demise of central records functions and file clerks also contributed.
The new desktop technologies were designed to introduce order when there was emerging independent chaos. Word processing programs and e-mail applications facilitate, or independently establish standard date entry and file names and allow object relationships. But where the system does not demand it, there is only limited individual and group initiative to ensure that topologies are created and maintained. There are precious few conventions and business rules defined for ensuring that corporate knowledge will be a consistent and valuable work output.
Not all the consequences of working independently may be negative. It may be acceptable in a transactional environment for someone to have a good answer on a timely basis for short term decisions, than to have full context information, or “knowledge”. But in an organization dependent upon corporate intelligence such approaches are not adequate. In any case, there could be legal repercussions from an institutionalized “one-off” information management process. The absence of audit trails, proper file depositories and document retention could be costly in the event of litigation. Moreover, without corporate memory an organization will be challenged to advance in a “continuous learning” manner to higher levels of performance and competence.
There are other interesting contrasts between “old” and “new” practices. While it would have been inconceivable a generation ago for an employee to destroy an interoffice memo, such happens daily at the desktop without fear of consequences. Perhaps employees assume that originators retain file copies of documents. Or perhaps employees assume that their IT shop routinely backs up, categorizes and retains copies of all electronic transmissions. Electronic information may be perceived to be of less “value” than hard copy…being “transitory” and of no real business, audit or archival value. There may be a continuing view that all “real work” still happens in hard copy. With no, or loosely applied IM rules, corporate earnings potential may be disappearing at a phenomenal rate with each strike of a delete key.
While practices have become fuzzy with the new technologies, the work information requirement itself has not remained constant. Modern workplaces demand ready access to broad information beyond that which would have been available in earlier, paper based offices. Good corporate decision-making demands knowledge about many environments, both internal and external. This is a need far beyond that of competitor manufacturing and sales data and employee absentee reports. It is sound knowledge about activities and trends, pending obstacles and opportunities, plans of regulatory agencies, hard information on non performing units and sound analyses on emerging consumer values and motivations.
Corporations, public and private, now operate much more in the public domain than many would have thought possible. Information sharing and extensive consultation with stakeholders is now a mission critical activity for competitive enterprises and open governments. Information access, once defined on a “need to know” basis, is now more likely to be “available, unless there are good reasons why not”. In the paper based office access would have been guided by one’s place in the hierarchy. But electronic utilities have significantly leveled organizations and opened their doors to external participation. The Internet presents new complexities and challenges: employees at most levels will now exchange “direct mail” with customers and other constituents. New electronic tools give taxpayers, organizations and associations the means to access on-line information. Such users now insist on seamless interfaces, the provision of information in multiple, user-friendly formats, and high levels of currency and relevance. The ability of other organizations to “capture” organizational information and “mirror” it on external sites means that ownership and control are now more problematic.
Are corporate systems adequate to ensure that such employees will be right most or all of the time? Will these transmissions be effectively recorded and filed? These are fundamental changes in the way we do business. And we are woefully unprepared to meet them. We lack understanding, and we lack discipline.
At the Operational Level: Problems
Good information management is not something that benefits only records keepers, auditors and legal departments. It has front line applications as well. It can address important internal needs to know and external needs for responsiveness. IM can help generate revenue and reduce operating costs. Much of the unnecessary and counterproductive duplication and overlap in our institutions could be reduced by better discipline in the ways we manage our information. Frustration can be reduced if answers to questions can be found readily, ideally from one’s own desktop. Codification of routine activities can free scare resources to focus on more critical issues.
But to be effective IM needs to be both sold and understood, and it needs to resonate at all levels of the organization. In other words, to do more and better work, to work in a more disciplined way, workers need to know what’s in it for them. IM begins, and ends, at the desktop. If everyone is not on board the transformation process to a knowledge enterprise will be tortuous and ultimately incomplete. Some illustrations of business impact may be useful to illustrate how IM comes from, and feeds back into, the individual worker. The cost and efficiency benefits are obvious.
Orientation time costs
Much work is similar (and in some cases exactly the same) in different business activities and in different regions. But the failure to recognize similarities, and establish standard processes and tools means that jobs continue to be considered “unique”. Because of this, when there is a need for an additional worker we can’t simply plug in a new body and expect that person to start work at once. There is a need to learn a whole range of “unique” procedures, policies and directives, “standards” and utilities. Defining the essential information bits that a worker in a specific field would need to have, and loading this on a generic screen, should reduce orientation costs and start up stress. Technology convergence should allow standard computer interfaces, even though specific applications may vary.
Routine information unavailability
What are the annual costs are for time lost looking up employee telephone numbers, addresses, titles and responsibilities? Or the costs of trying to locate basic program, activity and organizational information needed for reports? Or costs incurred sending people out to gather general and business-specific information which should be at the desktop?
Employees often do not have ready access to information on policies, training programs, job opportunities and application procedures. How does one ascertain that the travel policy in the desk drawer is current? Staff spend large amounts of time locating rooms for meetings and finding acceptable times when a group can meet. Confirming the identity and location of event participants takes considerable time.
Information for specific needs
If one is charged with producing a new corporate brochure and you need the history of the enterprise, where would one start? In many organizations this information is tacit only, and you can gather it only through interviews. Are employees expected to enhance their knowledge of enterprise history in a similar way? How does one ensure that consistent facts and interpretations are received when there are many senders, and few rules to guide them? Do we have an “official” history?
We need to know about “other officials”. If the corporate objective is to establish single points of contact for clients, a “full service regime” and one stop shopping, do we know who is responsible for what and how to reach them? Can a worker easily marshal all the needed HR, policy, forms, procedural and authority information to allow cutting a deal in a timely manner?
What about our project managers? If we are about to do a building renovation, can a manager access a concise and reliable history of the facility and its floor or wiring plans, the as-builts or the development approval conditions for a property? Does one have ready access to all the operational and improvement data over a reasonable period of time to allow a meaningful cost-benefit analysis? Have the data been gathered and maintained in a consistent fashion over time, or could the floor area be in metres one time and in feet the next, without any accompanying definition?
Potential for embarrassment
Organizations in the public domain or subject to regulator or public scrutiny are expected to keep records, and be able to retrieve information as needed. As organizational and operational complexity grows and the volume and variety of information increases, storage and retrieval will become more and more challenging. Employee turnover, policy and procedure indifference and other factors will continue to hamper effective capture and control of intellectual assets.
It is inevitable that information demands on the system by both officials and customers will increase. At some point these factors will meet at a junction where administrative response will be inadequate or inappropriate if they have not already. An organization may have had the best of intentions and done a fair job under the circumstances, but it will appear to have fumbled.
The same information is collected many times by all sorts of organizations. Some information is collected for long forgotten reasons or really had not been rationally (business) based in the first place. In defining what an organization and its workers need to know, there is also a need to identify that which is not needed. Rationalization will reduce data maintenance costs, and may lead to a clientele less burdened by unnecessary questions and pleased with a company they feel has greater trust in them.
Managing Human and Data Logistics
Employees are mobile. They frequency change jobs, locations, and assigned duties. The organization itself moves whole sections around, takes up new office lodgings, rolls out new telephone and computer equipment and changes section and branch names. Organizations ask employees for name and location information frequently. Often such information does not “keep up” with the employee. This results in lost or delayed checks, approvals or deductions. These activities require people to modify directories and databases. Yet changes are frequently slower than the business demands or the employee expects.
Terminology use differences between sections (or even workstations) drive staff to officers for frequent explanations. For example: “plans and strategies” mean different things to different people. “Resources” may mean just dollars for some, people for others. It can also mean all inputs (or overheads) needed to support a business activity. Is real property an asset? What is a “committee”, a “board”, a “working group”? What are the implications of uncertainly in such areas? What are the costs to an organization in repetitive responses to mundane queries?
In a scientific institution, research is “grounded”. It is linked into what has gone before, and what is happening elsewhere. It is never assumed that the current initiative has no precedents or parallels. A scientist starting a new project will be unavoidably drawn to the library, to the organization’s information holdings, to consult with colleagues. But in the non scientific world we often don’t assume, first, that what we need was either foreseen or answered before. Without a more “scientific” approach one could, conceivably, draw office floor plans time and time again.
The absence (real or perceived) of rules governing the disposition of correspondence, reports, manuals and plans (electronic or otherwise) means that new archives and repositories will be established, moved, changed and closed with regularity. Classification and filing systems will be invented by the manager of the day and replaced by successors. Inadvertent losses in important work will have to be replaced using scarce dollars.
Defining who is in the loop
Do many organizational managers really know the full range of skills, education and training, and specific interests held by all their employees? What are the procedures for involving and informing people? Is there a logical process for matching needs with the corporate resource pool? Or is the process really willy-nilly?
But where do we go from here?
The first challenge in working smarter is getting positioned to do so. Management gurus usually place high value on real employee empowerment, the breaking down of barriers, and improved information flow. Most managers would agree that, regardless of your management philosophy, a motivated and informed work force is essential. But our corporate structures often work contrary to such objectives. Business line jurisdictions and hierarchies frame our products and processes. We reward achievement within these parameters and discourage activity in others. We do not do a good job of telling our people what our enterprise is all about.
Employees at all levels need to know where the organization is, and is going. They need to know (or be able to work out) what opportunities are being or not being exploited. They need to know how, and that, they can put their ideas to work. They need information.
The motivation value of information sharing cannot be overstated. And that demands a regular process of bringing people into the know at early stages: when new activities, for example, are at first cut stage. (We need in this instance to strike a balance between needs for security and needs for enterprise success). Organizations that want to build a “knowledge enterprise” do not communicate with their workers solely by press release and directive.
Employees must do their part. They have to learn, change and adapt. If we are to have “discipline”, it will be the discipline of all, working collectively with shared values. It must be the way we “train our minds”.
Organizing for Change
Organizations embarking on the IM or knowledge enterprise voyage can expect a stormy trip. It will likely be costly. Some elements will take a lot of time to implement. But careful scrutiny will reveal, disjointed though they may be, many key IM elements already in place in nearly every organization. Many other elements can be developed quickly, cheaply and easily.
The first thing one needs is managerial commitment. One needs religion on this trip. The second need is employee buy-in. And what are they buying into?
- a corporate commitment to information sharing
- a shared understanding of what information is needed, how it will be gathered, how stored, how delivered
- recognition of the value of research
- agreement on recording rules and accuracy requirements
- agreement on information forms and formats
- effective data and information collection and management
- and lastly, all sorts of conventions: in name recording, date, location, activity names
Whatever the organization and function of the plan for information management, it needs a governance structure designed for the purpose, involving all sectors. The structure should be headed by a coordinating council to provide a high level, overseeing role. There is need for a suite of subgroups to develop and implement IM plans, procedures and policies that will collectively serve to transform the organization to one based on managed information.
“Councils” must have a defined authority and a membership of named individuals who have both business knowledge and that of the IM / IT fields. They should occupy positions related to re-engineering, change management, corporate services or business support. They should be expected to give 20% of their time to the Council over an assumed two year implementation period. Each member should chair a team focused on one element of the new IM paradigm; such as,
- Mission statements
- Business plans
- Defining the organizational culture
- Strategies for buy-in and motivation
- Developing and operationalizing IM Principles
- Defining key enterprise terms
- Planning for integration and control
- The policy and procedural framework
- Defining the CIO or CKO role
Part 2: The CIO and CKO
The CIO and Information Management
Chief Information Officers (CIOs) are responsible for IM/IT governance, information management (IM) policies and planning, and certain key information activities. They may lead or be key players in IT procurement, “architectures” of various types, network management and application development and readiness and roll out planning. CIO’s represent the perspective that corporate information or “knowledge” is a key tool that needs to be managed as any other asset.
In the various forums within which the CIO operates, his office hears the views of employees, managers, customers, clients and taxpayers who have different and not always compatible needs for business information. Sometimes organizations will “move a step up the ladder” and engage a Chief Knowledge Officer (CKO) who may be responsible for all of the above, and more besides. Usually a CKO will have less an IT preoccupation and more of a focus on the business. Indeed, it may be too much technical training could inhibit the performance of a CKO who, to be effective, must be comfortable in all the organization’s camps and seen to be partisan to none in particular. Both CIO’s and CKO’s however need to be highly competent in project management and communications. Whatever the title, the operative word is “information”, not “informatics” and we are concerned with CIO’s and CKO’s who manage information.
What is “Information Management (IM) to an “Information Manager”?
IM is a discipline for managing organizational information. It considers all information in all formats: text, data, graphics, audio and visual found in mail and voice mail, reports, forms, journals, magazines and books. IM focuses on standardized gathering, disseminating and distributing, archiving, and destroying information. IM measures the relevance of technology to these processes in terms of how they may be enabled or enhanced.
IM uses models, policies and procedures to ensure as far as possible that information maintained by an organization is useable, factual and consistent. It promotes standards and definitions through official vocabularies and glossaries, classification systems, “field definitions” and directories.
IM objectives include ensuring there are valid business reasons for gathering and holding information and ensuring that a client/user focus is maintained through all process stages. The IM discipline cannot be entirely ordered from the top. It must be learned, and accepted as a fundamental way of doing business in an information sharing organization.
Importantly, IM works within a policy and legal framework. The framework addresses such issues as content quality measures, security, access and sensitivity, and the needs of the handicapped among many other issues. IM plans and activities should clearly link to the plans and architectures for Business Planning, Information Technology (IT) and Office Automation (or Office Information Systems).
Key tools include an “information framework” which lays out values, plans, strategies and enablers. Another is a good glossary of terms, and yet another modeling which facilitates conceptualization of relationships and processes. Information managers like to define what various “types” of information are in use, or are emerging, and what the related needs and uses of such information are, or could be. They need to know a great deal about the way information is formatted and stored, how it is accessed and by whom, how it moves around and outside the organization, how and by whom it can be changed, and how, finally, it is disposed of.
Finally, information managers strive to be consistent with values and trends identified in the larger local, national and international communities, in such issues as stakeholder access to information, and processes that support an interactive relation between users and providers of information.
Information managers know that employees need critical mission information on a fast, ready-to-use basis. Employees need access to employee lists, locations, telephone numbers and succinct information on individual, group, branch and corporate functions and responsibilities. There are periodic needs for information on partner and competitor plans and activities and (usually on-line) access to current socioeconomic data of various kinds. They need, with lesser frequency, background information on programs and activities, strategic plans and directions, policies and procedures and financial authorities. They need to have “the whole picture” when addressing strategic directions, changes and evaluations. They want assurance that what they are accessing is valid, useable and consistent. A key success will be designing systems that ensure managers and staff at all levels know what information is available on a given subject, where it can be found, and how to access and use it.
External stakeholders want to be able to “deal with the enterprise” without navigating complex organizational charts and systems only to find that what is available is too little, too late or too costly for use.
The organization of information in these contexts has become a mission critical requirement. But many of our institutions, agencies and businesses are operating with state of the art technology and century old business practices.
What has been done
“IM” in many organizations is really just an outgrowth of IT. In others IM is really “data management” rather than “information management”. In yet other cases IM means centralized information distribution (including printing and/or conversion to electronic form). In some areas IM has tended to focus on the entry level issue, applying rigorous standards in data and field definition. These activities, though they may need re-engineering, can be important building blocks for a knowledge organization.
Many organizations already have effective systems at work. Though not integrated, these are centres of excellence that could be linked in corporate IM development:
- library services have well established organization and classification know-how
- corporate services may have tried and true links to external and internal publications and relevant business data and systems
- records officers may administer a file classification system for some or all information resources. It could be an “organization free” acronym or numerical identification system that has not been exploited for other identification opportunities
- forms managers are a significant underutilized resource, seeing their job as one of document design rather than information generator
- many administrative personnel still enforce hard copy subject and chronological filing but such is rarely brought forward into new document management processes
Towards a plan of action
Many organizations have made significant, strategic moves in the information domain recently. Many have IM/IT governance structures which bring business and technology to a common table for resolving critical issues of standards and practices. On a more practical level organizations have developed Information Management Plans (IMP) and Information Management Frameworks (IMF). These organizations have defined a set of “Information Management Principles” as a key plank in their IM planning.
High level data, information and knowledge models need to be supported by foundation plans and strategies in document management, files and records management, integration of desktop applications, organization wide system integration, database management and access to and exploitation of new technologies including “third generation mail”, Intranet and Internet.
At lower levels in some organizations work sectors and project teams are establishing site-specific plans and strategies. Corporate libraries are establishing on-line links to important sites and sources of business information. Business line and communications staff are developing new skills to exploit the new technical tools for document design, management and distribution. These can be important initiatives if they are strategically driven and corporately applied or available.
There is a need for structure and strategy but there is also a need for talent and knowledge skills. There is also a need for technical know-how. Not all employees have the knowledge, skills, hardware and software to allow them to use all the new desktop and corporate resources. Effort needs to be expended to determine not only minimum skill sets for working in an information based organization, but also to define what the minimum technical and infrastructure needs are as well.
New employee requirements
Working in a knowledge world is a major climate change, and it is coming up against cultures which are woefully unprepared for adaptation. The new climate is one where one understands:
- how critical information is to mission realization
- how one’s own information needs to be part of corporate resources
- how critical links can be to multiple stakeholder communities
- that roles are changing dramatically in the knowledge economy
- that organizational and jurisdictional walls are dissolving
- why work processes need to be defined, improved or rejected altogether
It is at the process level that the greatest work needs to be dome, and where the greatest benefit can be derived. Clearly the thesis of this paper is not a proposal for records maintenance for its own sake. The value of frameworks and architectures is in making notions explicit, developing shared understanding and ensuring that plans and strategies are consistent with our business operation and development models.
In these areas the roles of HR, training, communications and legal services will be instrumental and critical. They are both the “change leadership and safety net” that guides and supports employees as they transform the workplace, taking risks, learning new skills and incurring some measure of stress in the process. It is up to the information managers in organizations to work with internal agencies, external stakeholders, employees and managers to help make what is a very important business transformation happen with minimum losses and casualties.
David G. Jones