Managing Information for the Competitive Edge



The recognition in organizations that information needs to be managed has been slow in coming. In the eighties it was common for firms to make massive investments in technology and consider their information problems solved. If difficulties arose, the standard response was to upgrade to the latest hardware with the newest bells and whistles. A patchwork of systems developed, each operating with its own systems and standards. Information handling was dispersed through the organization and among disparate professionals from data processors and systems designers to librarians and records managers. Separate departments became rivals for increasingly limited resources and instead of joining forces to devote their combined expertise and energies to achieving organizational goals, they turned inward as survival became ever more problematic.

As economic conditions worsened in the late eighties and early nineties, top managers awoke to the fact that their investments in technology had not necessarily translated into productivity and profits and that the massive amounts of data generated were often divorced from the strategic purposes of the firm. As competitive pressures increased, the need for accurate, timely, and relevant information about customers, competitors, technology, and markets intensified. Survival depended on the right person having the right information at the right time in the right format.

To achieve this goal, however, required a drastic new mindset. Information had to be accorded its rightful place as a valued organizational resource much like staff and materials. It needed to be properly managed. Organizational and managerial needs had to be identified and means to meet them planned, provided, coordinated, and evaluated. Information provision had to be directed toward furthering the goals, productivity, and competitiveness of the organization. Information structures, processes, and architectures had to be re-examined and systems, technologies, and skills marshalled to improve the internal as well as external performance of the firm. For such sweeping changes to succeed they had to become a top organizational priority allocated the level of support appropriate to their newly enhanced role.

Individuals and firms contemplating improvements to their information management strategies have much to choose from. On the one hand, the variety of strategies chronicled in the literature assures that at least a few will apply in any given situation. On the other, there is no one infallible method or technique that will guarantee results. Unlike the management of other major functional areas such as finance or personnel which have clearly defined practices and procedures from one organization to the next, information managers do not have strictly defined parameters within which they must operate; their relationships within the organization are not always clear; their processes are still evolving; and their contribution to the organization is not immediate or readily discernible. All the experts agree, however, that overlooking, neglecting, or mismanaging information will have dire consequences for the firm while properly managed information will result in improved competitiveness, productivity, and profits though it may take three to five years for these benefits to be realized.

A vigorous and prolific exponent of intelligent information management is Blaise Cronin, the author of the first article in this part of the book. Cronin asserts that to survive in an increasingly competitive marketplace, firms must recognize that their information assets are among their most valuable resources. He provides examples of British and U.S. organizations that have exploited these assets to solve business problems, survive, and thrive. For him, quality assurance and information management are inextricably linked in the intelligent corporation. Whereas Cronin provides us with a valuable introduction to the critical importance of information in the corporate sector, it is David Ellis and his co-authors who provide specific methods and techniques for identifying the types of information that actually exist in the organization.

Information audits generally identify the goals of the organization, determine its users' needs, inventory its information resources, describe how its systems function, and recommend improvements. Closely related to these operational advisory audits are communication audits which assess the state of communications in the organization as measured against a set of desired criteria. In the information-intensive organization, effective communication plays a crucial role in facilitating information flow. Hence an audit to determine interpersonal, management-employee, and organizational communication assumes renewed importance. Among the instruments used for examining communication channels are questionnaires, network analysis, interviews, and diaries. Among other things, analysis of communication patterns can reveal those individuals in an organization who are turned to most often by others in their search for information.

The information that exists in an organization may be graphically represented by a technique known as information mapping. While Ellis et al provide a brief summary of the concept, it is Forest Woody Horton, Jr. who provides a more detailed description in the next article, "Mapping the Information Resource." Having evolved from the broader framework of information resource management (IRM), information mapping builds on the notion that information acquisition and use are directly linked to managerial effectiveness. The basic elements of this strategy according to Horton are to establish goals and objectives, determine functional requirements, identify major tasks and milestones, identify software options, and evaluate the expertise through follow-up. Undertaking such a baseline inventory of the organization's information resources helps control costs, motivate employees, manage assets, and provide the foundation for an information infrastructure.

It is one thing to know where information exists in the organization, it is quite another to ensure that it reaches the desired level and function when it is needed. In jostling for corporate ascendency, departments have been known to hoard information for their own advantage. This results in duplication and hence wasted time, effort, and resources. Too much information may be generated resulting in overload. To resolve such problems as hoarding and "infoglut", Ruth Stanat proposes that organizations create shared information networks. She addresses such issues as the location of such a network within the corporation, the type, format and distribution of the information, methods of measuring the effectiveness of the network and the pitfalls that should be avoided. She concludes with suggestions for broaching and building support for the concept among one's corporate colleagues.

To gain the cooperation of information stakeholders in the organization a thorough understanding of information politics is advisable. From their extensive work studying the information management efforts of corporations to create information-based organizations, Davenport, Eccles, and Prusak conclude that many failed because they did not manage the politics of information. Some used initiatives that were inappropriate to the corporate culture. Others viewed politics as a peripheral not integral aspect of their organizational life. Based on their observations, the authors classify corporate information politics into five models: technocratic utopianism, anarchy, feudalism, monarchy, and federalism. Their suggested strategy for effective information management is to choose a model that most closely matches the culture of the organization, select a realistic technological platform, and elect an information politician who can build coalitions, acquire resources, and sway the electorate as well as opinion leaders. To bolster their arguments they present experiences encountered in some of the leading U.S. corporations.

The final strategy presented here is one that has been prevalent in the military and select government agencies but has only recently made the transition to the private sector. As the success of an organization has come to be viewed increasingly in terms of the global competitive environment, managers have scrambled to collect, process, analyze, and disseminate competitive intelligence. Such intelligence would alert them to the plans and capabilities of competitors thus allowing them to shape their own corporate strategies more effectively. Douglas Bernhardt describes the intelligence process, shows how the product can be tailored to meet specific executive needs, and lists the benefits that can accrue to organizations that use this information management strategy.

The selection of articles that has been included by no means exhausts the scope of strategies available to information managers. The readings that follow build on the topics presented and introduce others that space limitations preclude from inclusion.