Managing Information for the Competitive Edge

Part III: Information Behavior of Managers


Managers are a distinct group of information users, whose information needs and information seeking preferences are largely conditioned by the demands and context of their work. The work of managers is open-ended because managers have to grapple with a wide range of issues, but also in the sense that many of the problems have no apparent closure in the short-term, their resolution having to unfold over time. The tempo of managerial work is also unrelenting, situations pile up one after another, and managers, like the Red Queen of Alice in Wonderland, often have to run very hard just to keep in the same spot. As a result, managers break up their work into small and varied chunks, so much so that every manager is constantly thinking about how to divide up her or his limited time between various tasks and priorities. In performing their work, managers recognize that their attention and cognitive capabilities are not boundless, and whenever they can they use simplified mental models to capture the most salient features of a complex situation and apply problem-solving heuristics that they have learned from experience. All these work-related demands imply that managers operate in a rather unusual information use environment. When seeking information, managers do not have the energy nor the cognitive need to be comprehensive in their information search. Time is of the essence, as managers are often required to act or respond swiftly. Because many of the problems they face involve uncertainty and ambiguity, managers typically prefer information sources and communication channels that can provide them with a sense of the hidden or informal dimensions of the situation. For these reasons, researchers have repeatedly found that managers prefer human information sources, and that they spend an overwhelming proportion of their time in meetings or on telephone calls. When searching for solutions, managers do not try to find the optimal answer - they search not for the sharpest needle in the haystack, but for a needle that is sharp enough to sew with. Managers are ready to make decisions when they are satisfied that the found alternatives are good enough choices.

The first article by Jeffrey Katzer and Patricia Fletcher review the literature on managerial information behavior. Their review suggests that managerial activities are dynamic, uncertain, and complex, often involving messy situations that are ill-defined. They take place in an environment that is "informationally overloaded, socially constrained, and politically laden." Partly as a result of this, managers prefer to communicate orally, with little time left over to read long documents. Managers gather information externally to learn what their directions should be and who can help them, and they sometimes make decisions based on intuition in which case information may be subsequently sought to justify these decisions. Overall, the authors conclude that the information behavior of managers is a dynamic process that unfolds over time, and that the process interacts actively with the information environment in which the managers work. The managers' information environment is defined by the organizational setting, the roles they perform, and the activities they undertake. With this as context, managers then seek and use information to deal with a series of "problematic situations" such as hiring staff, developing marketing plans, or preparing budgets. In handling each problematic situation, the manager determines what types of managerial roles and activities are most appropriate, and which dimensions of the situation are most salient. This set of roles, activities, and dimensions then shapes the manager's information behavior. As new information arrives, and as the manager reflects and acts on the problematic situation, the perception of the situation changes, creating new uncertainties and priorities. The problematic situation is redefined in terms of roles, activities and dimensions, which in turn leads to revised information behaviors. The process iterates until the problematic situation is considered resolved in the manager's mind.

In their article, Richard Daft and Robert Lengel introduce the concept of information richness as a basis for understanding managerial information behavior. Managers essentially handle two sets of information tasks: processing sufficient amounts of information, and reducing information equivocality. They suggest that the accomplishment of these tasks and ultimately the success of the organization would require managers to balance the use of information richness in their organizations. Information richness is defined as the potential information-carrying capacity of the communication of some data; the communication is considered information-rich when it can change or provide substantial new understanding. The information media used in organizations offer different degrees of richness. Face-to-face communications are the richest because they allow feedback, and the use of multiple cues and language variety. Conversely, numeric, formal reports such as computer printouts are the least rich because they lack these capabilities. Top managers need rich information when they are trying to interpret or reduce the equivocality of ambiguous messages about unclear situations, such as changes in the external environment. The interpreted information then moves down the organization through communications of progressively lower richness. Media of lower richness are used to define goals, policies and procedures at lower levels in order to provide the clarity and certainty for the organization to function efficiently. Overall, the balanced use of information richness enables the organization to learn about an uncertain environment, while providing direction for participants to do their work.

The article by Ethel Auster and Chun Wei Choo presents a study that attempted to apply some of the theoretical concepts introduced above. The objective of their research was to study how chief executive officers in two Canadian industries acquire and use information about the external business environment. Thirteen CEOs in the publishing and telecommunications industries supplied detailed accounts of 25 critical incidents of obtaining and using environmental information. The results suggest that CEOs do most of their information scanning in the competition, customer, regulatory and technological sectors of the environment. Economic and sociocultural sectors appeared to be less important. They acquire or receive information about the business environment from multiple, complementary sources, with personal sources being the most frequently used. Because they have limited time and attention, CEOs appear to use printed sources as an efficient way of doing a broad scan of the environment. On the other hand, personal sources have high information richness that allow the executives to interpret ambiguous situations. The CEOs used environmental information mainly in the entrepreneurial decisional role, in which they make decisions about new projects such as introducing new products and initiating market strategies.

The list of additional readings contains selections that elaborate and expand on our introduction and the articles in this part. Most of the readings focus on managerial functions and decision making in particular, but many contain discussions of the information seeking and information processing behaviors of managers.