Information is a business-critical asset of any organisation

Every organisation knows how many chairs it has, how many hand driers, how many people it employs, how much stock it has and how much money it has in the bank or is owed.

Every single one of those assets is listed out and someone takes direct responsibility for making sure that the asset is of a quality appropriate to its purpose, is regularly inspected and replaced when needed. All the fixed assets and financial resources are given a value in the annual report.

However no organisation knows how much information it has, claims information expert Martin White. Martin has spent the past 45 years of his career working with information management and is well-versed in information science.

Martin was also among the keynote speakers at the inaugural J. Boye conference in 2005. The photo is from a joint appearance at a London intranet conference in 2014. In this post, he explains why he thinks that information is a business-critical asset of any organisation.

The value of information management

Your organisation may know how much digital storage it has but that is not the same as knowing how much information it has. There are no quality standards, no one is responsible for making sure it is used properly and the information is never reviewed to make sure it is still relevant to the business.

There is no value placed on information in the annual report. However in the annual report there will be a summary of the risks that the organisation faces, and most of those risks arise through problems in finding and managing internal and external information.

In 2000 the Millennium Bridge across the River Thames in London was opened, but it had to be closed after two days because it started to oscillate alarmingly when people walked across it. It took two years and a considerable sum of money to add in shock absorbers.

This was a known problem. It had been described in a research paper in 1993 but no one knew it existed. That is just one small example of what happens when information is not easily available.

Proper training is necessary

Organisations provide training courses on many topics but never on information management. The reason is probably that everyone knows how to manage information.

But these organisations never take the most basic of steps to see whether staff can find and trust the information they need to make business-critical decisions that not only affect the performance of the organisation but also their own career progress. At a senior management level business schools offer short courses in a huge range of topics, but never how to manage information as an asset.

Why should that be? The fundamental problem is that we don’t know what we can’t find. If a chair is missing or an invoice has not been paid someone will know. All enterprise IT systems are there to support business processes. So if an invoice has not been paid the process cannot be completed and a red flag is raised.

But in the case of information we can only trust that the systems that the organisation has put into place will ensure that we have all the information we need. There is no basis for the trust.

Many managers just want their search service to be like Google. But Google is very imperfect. It may look intuitive, but if this was really the case why are there books of 250 pages devoted to how to get the best out of Google. If you are looking for research information (such as the paper on bridge dynamics!) in Google you may not realise that because of a lack of links it will not show up in the first ten or even twenty pages of results.

You need to use Google Scholar instead, which takes a different approach to finding relevant results.

The future of information management

Information management strategies are usually built around a life-cycle model

  • Create – adding information

  • Store – placing it in a current repository

  • Discover – finding it by searching or browsing

  • Access – making sure that you have the right to see it

  • Use – using information to make a decision

  • Share – circulating it inside and perhaps outside the organisation

  • Review – making sure it is still accurate

  • Revise or discard

The scope of this model is beyond that of the Chief Information Officer. Although a CIO may take responsibility for a master data schema they will have no expertise or interest in setting metadata standards for information, and establishing taxonomies and controlled vocabularies.

This is moving into the area of information science, which has been my professional discipline for 45 years. Information scientists place the same emphasis on information as chemical scientists do on chemistry. We seek to understand how it is created, stored etc. Information is fundamental to life itself. The DNA in our genes is just one example of information management. It is well worth reading A Very Short Introduction to Information by Luciano Floridi to get a sense of the scale of managing information.

An inability to manage information also means that organisations are not managing knowledge. All too often knowledge has to be written down for sharing and storage even if the act of writing down locks it in time and means that the context is lost. Information and knowledge are intrinsically locked together, something that few organisations understand and manage.

Over the last few years the term information governance has tended to take precedence over information management. They are two complementary concepts. The difference is that information management is technology independent – it deals with the standards, guidelines and processes of managing information. Information governance is concerned with the activities and technologies that organizations employ to maximize the value of their information while minimizing associated risks and costs.

Information governance seems to attract more attention in organisations because of the use of the word ‘governance’ which seems less overbearing than ‘management’. Certainly IBM in particular has been pushing the concept of information governance.