2014-14-July-Obstacle-Course.jpgI get the opportunity to speak with hundreds of folks a year about managing information at organizations, and probably the most common requirement I hear is, information management needs to be easy and user friendly -- if users have to do anything more difficult than what they do now, it will fail.

It’s difficult to formulate a response to this request (or even keep a straight face). The idea that somehow you could go from managing corporate information horribly to managing it well and have it be perceived by end users as easy is pretty astounding.

Before all the UI/UX folks out there break out the pitchforks and torches, let me explain what I mean and why.

One of Four Pillars

To appreciate why information management can’t be easy, it’s important to fully understand the centrality of information management to an organization. No matter the size or industry, organizations only do four things: manage financial assets, manage physical assets, manage human assets and manage information assets. So when we talk about optimizing a firm’s information management people, process and technology, we’re talking about impacting one of the pillars of the organization, not some ancillary function or capability.

Can you imagine a large manufacturing organization in the midst of transforming its approach to supply chain management requiring that the transformation be perceived by end users as easy and user friendly? Or that an organization considering the adoption of an ERP system like SAP or Oracle would base their decision on what end users thought? Absolutely not, for two reasons:

  • The impact to operations will be too profound to expect that user experience could remain positive/net neutral -- at least in the near term
  • The expected benefits to the organization are great enough to merit imposing the change management burden on users and the wider organization

Would we really expect migrating off shared drives and onto an enterprise content management platform like SharePoint to be seamless, user friendly, or easy? Remember, you’re asking users who today essentially expend zero effort on document lifecycle hygiene (version control, check in check out, tagging, file naming conventions, etc.) to expend a level of effort greater (and often much greater) than zero tomorrow -- and that will never be perceived by users as easy and will therefore always require effective change management to be successful.

Don Draper Found HR Too Difficult

I often use the example of the evolution of HR in the last half of the twentieth century as an analogy for where information management needs to go.

In 1960, HR was not something that every employee felt was a part of their job. If they thought of HR at all, it was an afterthought at best, something you did when hiring or firing someone or when doling out raises. And -- if Mad Men is to be believed -- folks like Don Draper would have found it very un-user friendly to have to abstain from drinking at work, sleeping with their female coworkers or engaging in bawdy conversations around the water cooler.

The answer, thankfully, was not to make HR best practices easier for the Don Drapers of the world, but to work tirelessly to transform the culture of the American corporation to create an environment where the difficult changes required to make the workplace amenable to folks other than white males was perceived as worth it.

The result is that in 2014, we all do HR all the time, mostly without noticing it. Every interaction with our bosses, peers, employees, even partners and vendors, benefits from the internalization of key HR principles and practices so that we hardly notice that we’re doing it. In fact, these principles and practices are so ingrained that we’re legitimately shocked when we have an interaction that doesn’t fit them, e.g., hearing an inappropriate comment in a work context.

In the world of information management, we’re living in the age of Don Draper and we need to move into the twenty-first century, where information management principles and practices will be ingrained enough that folks won’t even notice they've adopted them. But until then, the changes required will be neither easy nor user friendly -- so let’s stop pretending they could ever be.

The Final Word

A great deal of the blame for the unreal expectations around the ease of information management falls to practitioners in the industry, who promulgate the idea that somehow the challenges organizations have faced in getting information management right have been due to the technology solutions not being user friendly or simple enough. This is like saying that we’re a nation of overweight, sedentary folks because diet and exercise are too hard, so we better make it easier to lose weight through diet pills, breakfast shakes, and “no effort” workout technology like electro-shock girdles that melt belly fat while you sit on the couch.

Bottom line: the answer to both poor information management practices and obesity is not making the solutions easier, because effective solutions to each can never be easy. The answer instead is to change the wider culture so that we find the payoff for the hard work required by both to be worth it.

Title image by DVIDSHUB (Flickr) via a CC BY-2.0 license