Only with a professional approach to management can business integrate four distinct information worlds and beat information overload through quality, says Sharm Manwani
If information is the lifeblood of an organisation (along with its people) why is it that almost all the attention is focused on technology?
We know only too well the importance of information in competing in a global economy or protecting our society against terrorism. This information comes in many different forms, from a variety of sources, and has to be validated, consolidated and presented in order to make the right decisions. We also recognise that this information has to be controlled and secure so that it is not misused. Both the public and private sector have these common challenges even though the ultimate use is different.
Technology does of course play a vital role in capturing, storing and delivering information. Historically, it has been the processing of structured data that has taken prominence. Accounting was an early candidate for saving staff by automating repetitive tasks. Adding financial numbers is an easier computing task than searching for unstructured data such as a unique address entered in different formats in multiple documents.
In a similar vein, there are significantly different challenges in controlling information compared to exploiting it. Control requires records to be held securely with data that is ideally captured once at source and validated. Exploitation, on the other hand, requires providing information access to empowered users, supported by the relevant analytical and sharing tools.
If we now take the concepts - structured and unstructured - and link them with control and exploitation, we see an interesting phenomenon. We have ended up with four distinct information worlds driven largely by the technology that supports them (see diagram).
The challenge is to reintegrate these four worlds through a professional approach to information management. It is only then that we can fully exploit the information available to us for organisational advantage. The alternative is a piecemeal approach where major decisions require an understanding of four different information worlds with their own technologies and skill sets.
How do we combine these worlds from an information perspective? One way is to take the information skills we have gathered in one world and apply them to the other worlds. As an example, we should not restrict the role of an information architect to structured databases. They should be comfortable in applying their design skills to the other quadrants of the information management model.
Another way is to develop new skills, like information quality management, that span these four worlds. We have seen many project failures where migration was seriously late due to underestimating the data quality issues. An investment is needed in developing quality skills that ensure information is fit for purpose. So how shall we develop these skills?
Managers make decisions by combining structured and unstructured data, so firstly, information professionals need to operate in both these worlds. They also need a core understanding of how to control and exploit information although they may then specialise in one of these areas. A starting point is to understand the information lifecycle, including stages such as define, capture, store, access and monitor.
Secondly, information competency is needed by managers and professionals from all functions. Many have a relatively hazy idea of how to define their information requirements, seek out the information and perform quantitative and qualitative analysis. They need to enhance their skills and be supported by professionals who have a broad business change capability comprising information as well as process and systems components.
Thirdly, those who are involved in the information profession - managers, professional bodies, government, researchers and so on - need to work together to define and develop information roles and skills. This will help us create the training and qualifications needed.
We also see opportunities here to feed into the Skills Framework for the Information Age. The SFIA offers an industry-standard framework, which aims to provide a common reference model for the identification of the skills needed to develop effective IT systems. We believe the current focus of the framework is more biased to technology than information.
So what will the future look like? We see increasing demands for regulation and access to both structured and unstructured information. As information bases continue to expand this will lead to further information overload and a need for better information quality. Organisations will seek to enhance their information management roles and skills to be effective in this environment. This provides a growth opportunity for professional bodies, business schools, consultancies and, above all, information professionals.
Curriculum vitae: Sharm Manwani
Sharm Manwani held IT and business process director positions at leading multinationals while obtaining his MBA and doctorate at Henley Management College.
In 2000, he joined the faculty at Henley, where he is researching, mentoring, and lecturing in information management and is the co-author of a CIO elective. He consults with major organisations on strategy, programme management and IT capability and leadership development.
Manwani is a fellow of the BCS and currently vice-president, research at the Global IT Management Association. Publications include "Global IT architecture: Who calls the tune?" in JGITM and "The IT contribution in developing a transnational capability at Electrolux" in JSIS.
He has presented at various conferences, most recently at the 2005 IT Directors Forum.
Information management group looks ahead
A wide ranging group with a strong interest in "raising the bar in information management" has been involved in talks and workshops on the role of professional information management and the effective exploitation of organisations' information assets.
Members involved to date are from the following organisations:
- Metropolitan Police Service
- British Computer Society
- Chartered Institute of Librarians and Information Professionals
- Henley Management College.
The group is now seeking to broaden its engagement with members from other commercial and professional organisations sharing similar aims. For further information contact: