Where it comes from
In the last 10 years almost every person in every task within an organisation, not to mention private individuals in their home environments, have been exposed to IT. The shorthand for information technology is used to describe a wide range of equipment and associated facilities. The computer department has become the IT department with a much wider range of tasks and responsibilities. The IT function has a seat at the highest levels in corporate management and commensurate budgets.
In addition, the invention of the Web, an information management tool, has meant that IT functions have been extended to the presentation of information in ”common” formats, mostly through the use of a portal, a web based tool for providing a single interface to the information an individual needs to do their job and, in many cases, a window on the world outside the organisation, offering access to news and information.
Most Information Professionals (IPs) within organisations will be familiar with the scenario of the introduction of a portal but how many were involved in its selection and design?
Most IPs will be familiar with the sequence of events where a network is introduced, shared resources are offered, central files and backups are encouraged, cross organisation email is introduced. Then individual or departmental web pages appear, the organisation portal is installed. The next stage is normally the creation of a categorisation, where a further level of access or a ”front page” to the portal is introduced and then, at least in large organisations, departmental front pages or classifications appear and so on.
Whiles most IPs were not involved in the introduction of the portal and its consequences they were involved in the introduction of Internet based information sources or in the worst case scenario, at budget time, in reacting to the suggestion that ”we don’t need an IP now that we have the Internet”
IPs have still the same role, regardless, the provision of the right information to the right people at the right time. That has not changed, what has changed, out of all recognition, is the environment in which this role is performed.
Where do you fit?
Involvement, that is the keyword.
Most IT introduction, in the sense of its development from ”computer” usage, starts with the automation of tasks that were not already computerised, in many cases this is word processing, with one or two individuals or departments justifying their investment on the basis of efficiency, speed, simpler access to the documents, etc. It is at this stage that the IP should be involved, suggesting file structures, offering advice on document numbering and classification schemes, even offering involvement in training. You don’t have a PC? justify the use of your budget to get one, expend some efforts on being good at using it. Get your retaliation in first!
If and when an IT department is developed get in there. Annoy them if you must, but get in there. Learn the language. Get involved in the decision making, most IT professionals like to start with clean sheets of paper and design systems, their training is based on that, they like to introduce the idea of a ”computer system” or a ”document management system” or whatever and spend a lot of time analysing the flows etc. They then find that the budget cannot support the grand design and resort to sub solutions or part solutions, some of which are not always part of a grand design. The IP should be in there. Most IT designs involve information movement, IPs should be involved in seeing where the information comes from and goes to in the business process being computerised. Typically, a shared document construction scheme, or the common use of spreadsheets for planning are information rich activities but the IT design often ignores this in the pursuit of an efficient networked solution, or worse, in the attempt to reconcile ”document standards” or in more recent times, to build ”e-commerce” solutions.
In designing ”information efficient” IT the understanding of the business process is paramount. This may sound like jargon but information flows are central to business processes. If your organisation designs, manufactures and sells toothbrushes for example, information is critical to all the processes concerned. Start at the end, if the customer is buying (or not buying) a particular line of your products, do you know why? how much are they buying, why are they not buying - Price competition? Colour? Packaging? Supermarket positioning? ….? All the answers represent information: where is it, how does your organisation get it, who needs it? The processes surrounding the flow of the information are the business processes, the design of the product, the choice of colours, the price level, etc., all form part of the process. Relating this to IT systems design means that the information flow should be the basic parameter, an information audit the first step. Who is best placed to do the information audit, the IT person or the IP? In your organisation have you done an information audit? Have you thought about it? Who might do it? Are you (the IP) involved?
If and when you get involved in the audit, the purpose is to see who has information, what they do with it, who else uses it, how do they get it, who else needs information, etc. The result of the audit should make it possible to see the flows. These can then be compared with the reality, with the actual needs.
Finally, when all the bits and pieces of information floating about have been identified and allocated then the IP (with the IT people, let’s face it they need to be involved, this is not a an exercise in looking after IPs only) needs to start looking at information related systems designs.
Inevitably, this starts from how the situation is now, which may not be the ideal situation; it would be nice to start from a clean sheet but it almost never happens. In these circumstances the best way to approach design is to look for a process that can be dealt with as a stand alone activity, at least in part. Something like market feedback data, which will at least start its life in the organisation in the marketing or sales area, before being fed back to manufacturing or distribution in the form of new or changed products, more efficient distribution, etc., is a good example. In a case like this the IP needs to look at where the data comes from (typically in the case of market feedback, from a mixture of sales data, sales personnel reports, general (external) information on customer preferences, competitor information, etc.), in what form, in what quantity and where it is used and then what conclusions are drawn from the data and where they are used. Another set of flows, but this time with a design behind them, identifying the data type, the processing requirements, the software required, the formats, the networking needed, etc. The first such exercise should be used by the IP to build confidence with the IT people so that future designs can be fitted in easily and the role of the IP is understood and accepted.
The outcome of involvement in individual design projects should lead the IP into the situation where they are involved in the wider field of information architecture. Architectures are well known concepts in IT, the relationship between design and use. Information architectures should properly be the domain of the IP, leading to a situation where information designs are created on a ”fitness for purpose” basis, not to fit an IT pre-conception.
As mentioned earlier, when an organisation installs a portal or some such interface then the next step, or even at the same time, a categorisation or some sort of classification of the information behind the portal, is needed. Here the IP has the proper knowledge on how to implement such a facility. It may even be a trivial task, depending on how complex the organisation is. The temptation is to just divide up the portal in line with the departments or other functional units of the organisation, after all the portal is only the front door, everyone can recognise where they should be from their functional unit. In addition, there can be items such as human resources, holiday applications and other such trivia. This might be described as the administration approach, typically resulting from a discussion between the IT people and the administration or senior managers. The more intelligent approach, which should be applied by the IP is to organise the portal around information needs. This may still have a departmental or functional bias, but it will be driven by the individuals’ or units’ information and be centred around it.
Involvement with the categorisation of the portal or at least influencing the thinking surrounding it, will bring the IP into direct contact with management, and enable the IP to introduce information based thinking into systems design. Even where management and the IT interests have decided to invest in one of the wide range of software packages that purport to sort out ‘documents’ into categories the IP’s involvement will, if properly appreciated, improve the quality of the output. The purpose in any case is to illustrate the role the IP can have in efficient IT installations.
One area of organisational information activity which has boomed is use of email. Internal and external communication is increasingly being carried out by that means. However, organising mails and making them accessible in files is poorly implemented. An IP can quickly and easily get involved in this area by suggesting a set of relevant file names for filing emails within whatever software is used. This can be suggested to management as an organisation wide procedure, thereby drawing the attention of management to IP skills.
The other important outcome of this sort of involvement is that it can be the start of a whole set of activities concerning how individuals see and use information. Usually, behind the portal, individuals or functional units, have their own preferred format, their home page. The IP can be involved in the design of this also and consequently in how the individual or unit uses information. All of this is further confidence building.
What to do?
All of the above seems quite logical but how is it done? Obviously there is no ”once size fits all” method, it will depend on the circumstances. What follows is a set of suggestions which may help the process.
Often, getting started in the ”world” populated by the IT people is the most difficult step. There is no best way, as stated earlier, building confidence is a slow process. It can sometimes be achieved by suggesting to the ”clients” of IT ways in which they should or could specify their requirements, they are not normally specialised in IT themselves and accept suggestions. There are dangers in this approach, such as aggravating IT by being sent to be interfering, so dealing with both IT and their clients is the best approach. This can be simply by offering assistance, taking on a task of looking for a piece of software or hardware, looking for case studies of similar situations, offering to sort out a problem with filing or sorting information, helping individuals to ”get organised”.
The most important thing to do is to see each of such actions as a learning activity. IPs can be the bearer of experience between departments, can suggest ways in which information related issues have been dealt with in one place which may benefit another. The other side of that coin is that the IP learns how things operate in different parts of the organisation, sees where information flows are coming from and going to and learns how new or improved systems might be implemented, input to the design process mentioned above.
In dealing with IT, a most important aspect is to be able to ”talk the talk” – to discuss things in terms which are familiar to IT people. This needs careful preparation, the worst thing is to appear to be stealing their territory, so using terms in the wrong situation can be dangerous. The most important item is to know what you are talking about when it comes to dealing with information.
Typically, understanding the role of XML – not necessarily at the level of writing XML code for Web pages – is critical. There is a whole world of activity surrounding XML such as Topic Maps, the Semantic Web, etc., which are in the IP area of activity. They tend to be occupied by researchers from computer science backgrounds, presently, but a regular scanning of the developments in these areas should pay dividends in interactions with IT plans and projects.
In addition, a regular scanning of the email lists concerning subject such as OAI (Open Archives Initiative) KM (Knowledge Management) and Competitive Intelligence and Business Intelligence will be worthwhile. In particular, new software announcements in these fields, such as collaborative working, categorisation tools, and document management need to be followed.
Finally, follow the users. As an IP you have regular contact with them, extend it to include their ”internal” information use. Point out to them that IPs have skills in organising information which is not restricted to library or information centre functions. Help them with their day to day use of information management tools, whether or not they use the information centre as part of that use. Learn what their needs are, arrange training in the use of software and access to external information, especially via the Internet, continually assess the value of new sources, especially those coming available via the Net.
IT has become a routine part of the operations of almost every kind of organisation. As it has grown it has moved into the area of information management from the traditional areas of accounts, payroll etc. In many cases the role traditionally occupied by IPs has been taken over by IT. The IP has a set of skills which can be used to complement that of IT. It remains to IPs to move to liaise with their IT colleagues in order to share their skills and improve information management.