Managing Information for the Competitive Edge

Part II: Understanding the Information Requirements of Organizations


Almost every single activity in an organization is so tightly bound with information seeking and information processing that it seems futile to try an unravel an underlying structure beneath the unruly mess of organizational information needs. Yet without such a structure for understanding organizational information requirements, information cannot be managed. Researchers have approached the problem of organizational information needs at three levels: the systems level, the user-group level, and the cognitive level.

At a systems level, an organization is composed of activities and processes that transform raw materials (both tangible and intangible) into goods and services of economic or social worth. Each component process takes in a package of informational as well as physical inputs, works on it and brings it a few steps closer to its final form by adding more energy, information, or materials. In fact, more and more organizations today are creating economic value by including more and better information in both their processes and outputs - information applied in the form of efficient yet flexible procedures, accurate knowledge about customer wants, well executed product designs, ease of use, greater service responsiveness, and so on. An overarching goal of analyzing organizational information requirements is therefore to determine what and how information and intelligence may be introduced into the organization's processes and output in order to maximize learning and value-adding.

Strictly speaking, organizations do not seek information. Information is sought by the various groups of people that make up the organization - accountants, clerks, engineers, managers, operators, and many others. The second level of analysis is to study these groups of participants, separated by their professional, work or social boundaries, as distinct groups of information users, each with its each own information needs, information seeking habits, and information processing styles. Differences in information behaviors may be due to many reasons. For example, accountants may differ from engineers as information users because of their professional education and apprenticeship. Clerks may have a different attitude towards information from managers because of their work-related constraints or demands. The study of professionally or socially defined groups of users has always been actively pursued in library and information science, and will continue to supply insights into the information needs of particular organizational groups.

Beyond groups of users, information is obtained and made use of by individuals acting as cognitive, sentient persons. They begin their information search with information needs that may range from being impossible to articulate to the highly specific. As they encounter information, their behavior often appears erratic: they change direction frequently depending on what they find, they choose items that have no apparent relevance, and they gather information that they subsequently do not use. Yet recent research suggests that there is order beneath the apparent chaos. In seeking and using information, people are continuously constructing meaning out of the information they receive, and in doing so they appear to be employing certain basic strategies, depending on the kind of information-need situation they are in. Such research, which is ongoing, could lead to a fuller understanding of the information needs of organizational members.

In their article, "How information gives you competitive advantage," Michael Porter and Victor Millar describe the many ways in which information and information technology are transforming the products, processes, structures, and the very nature of competition. In order for organizations to gain an information advantage, they suggest that organizations start by assessing the information intensity of their products and services. A product has high information intensity when it mainly provides information, or requires substantial information processing or training to use. Today's firms are competing by increasing the information content of their products and services - appliance retailers set up customer hotlines, couriers maintain continuous tracking systems, database vendors offer free training, and so on. To assess the information intensity of a process, Porter partitions the work of the organization into a value chain of linked activities, each of which creates and uses physical and informational inputs and outputs. The value chain is information-intensive when the organization deals with a large number of suppliers or customers, requires many steps to produce its goods or services, or requires large quantities of information to sell its offerings. Assessing the information intensity of the organization's products and processes therefore provides a powerful way of understanding the strategic information requirements of the organization. Porter and Millar then go on to explain how information and information technology can alter the competitive structure of an industry, support cost and differentiation strategies, and spawn new businesses.

While Porter and Millar look at organizational processes and outputs at a systems level, Robert Taylor's focus is on the information needs of distinct groups of information users working in professional or social settings and using information to resolve typical problems. Taylor's starting premise is an important one - that there are factors in the users' information environment that go beyond information content and subject matter, factors by which users judge the value or usefulness of the information they receive. These factors are grouped into four categories: sets of people; structure of problems faced by these sets of people; work or social settings; and the resolution of problems. Sets of people are defined in terms of their information behaviors, and Taylor identifies four classifications: the professions (including managers), entrepreneurs, special interest groups, and special socioeconomic groups. Each set of people or information users has its own characteristics (e.g., education, media use, social networks, attitudes) that explain differences in information behavior. Each set of people is concerned with a distinct class of problems, created by the requirements of its profession, occupation or life style. Problems change all the time as new information is obtained and as the user changes position and perception. Four attributes of the work setting influence information behavior: attitude towards information, task domain, information access, and past history and experience. Finally, each set of people has a different perception of what constitutes the resolution of a problem. Eight classes of information use are defined, as well as several information traits that can be related to problem dimensions to determine information usefulness. Taylor's framework suggests a systematic way of analyzing the information requirements of an organization: identify the groups of information users in the organization, recognize the kinds of problems they typically handle, examine their work and social settings, and understand the ways in which they consider a problem to have been resolved.

Taylor's approach is part of the user-centered movement in information science to understand information needs and design information services from the point of view of the user rather than from the perspective of the library or information system. The article by Ruth Morris provides a useful summary of the work of Brenda Dervin, Nicholas Belkin, Robert Taylor, and Carol Kuhlthau in this area. According to these researchers, information is something that is subjectively constructed by users, humans share common traits when seeking and using information, and information needs and use depend on the contexts in which these needs arise and information is sought. Being user-centered does not mean having to deal with the infinite variety of the needs and preferences of every individual user. Research has found that the ways in which people perceive their cognitive gaps or problem situations and the ways that they want information to help are good predictors of their information seeking and use behaviors. Furthermore, as people search for information, they move through stages that are characterized by different information-seeking behaviors and emotional states. The user-centered model of information and information needs provides a cognitive framework with which to analyze the information requirements of organizational members. Morris discusses the user-centered model, and draws practical implications for the provision of information services, including reference interviews, question negotiation, indexing and cataloguing, and knowledge transfer.

The list of additional readings contains selections from the business, information needs and uses, and information systems literatures. Many of the readings describe research that essentially adopts one of the three approaches we have discussed: the systems, user-group, or cognitive approach.