J. Boye Conference Philly 2009:Information Strategy, Information as PowerEveryone says that information is power, but what does that really mean? Some people talk about information strategy, but that's even murkier. How does an information manager -- a content manager, Webmaster or anyone who works with information -- make sense of all this? And what happens when the boss wants to make your tile and flooring company's intranet "more like Facebook"?

At the J. Boye conference in Philadelphia, Bob Boiko, author of Laughing at the CIO, had some great insights on using information the way that finance uses numbers: to make points and make things happen.

What is Information Strategy? What's Information?

The concept of "information" is often more complicated than it needs to be.  Information is just encoded communication. Why is it encoded? Usually just so it can be transported.

This leads to the concept of the information system, which is just a way to talk to people who aren't in front of you. To do that, you need to be able to move information from place to place.

Strategy, at bottom, is just a way to get what we want: power, money, a public that cares about the environment or a great fourth quarter. So the bottom line for information strategy is the question, "How can information help us get what we want?"

To  answer that question, it helps to think about what information can do.

The Four Effects of Information

The eighteenth-century philosopher and clergyman George Scott pointed out that information has four effects. Information can:

  1. Enlighten the understanding: Information can show you something about the world you didn't know, such as the effect of lead on a baby's development.
  2. Please the imagination: Information can entertain, amuse, or even shock you. Gossip magazines rely on this one.
  3. Move the passions: Information can cause you to feel joy, sadness, outrage or any other emotion.
  4. Influence the will: Information can motivate you to do something to change yourself or the world around you -- stop smoking, start saving or keep exercising.

Most information is only one type, although it's possible that any piece of information could be all four. Most information, especially the kind that organizations publish, either teaches or amuses. But it may be more useful to publish information that arouses emotion and motivates people to act, especially if you have goals you want to accomplish.

Putting Together an Information Strategy

First, clarify what you want to do. If you're a university, you might want to increase the number of students who request information from you, for instance.

Secondly, classify the effects of the information you're already offering. Is it just factual or amusing, or does it have emotional force? Does it persuade anyone to do anything?

Next, begin to set up your strategy using "strategic triples." A strategic triple considers three elements of the information landscape to help you decide which approach to take.

  1. Which Information to which Audiences for which Goals: This is the "organization-centered" approach. It is about expressing what your organization wants to express -- the unique spirit of your university, for example. This is an important part of achieving your goals. However, many organizations focus on this triple and ignore all the others, which can lead to a perfectly-crafted message that nobody pays attention to.
  2. Which Information to which Audiences through which Publications: This is the "user-centered" approach. It considers what users want and where they expect to find it. For instance, a local newspaper ad might not be the best way to attract high-school seniors to your university, as they tend not to read papers. But that might be a good place to find parents, or even the grandparents who might be helping out with tuition.
  3. Which Information through which Authors/Sources to which Publications: This is often overlooked...but as Boiko pointed out, if you think of this process as like a diamond business, with the first triple about the diamond company and the second about the people who want diamond wedding rings, this triple is the diamond mine itself! It's important to think about who will be producing the information you need to carry out your strategy. Without a mine, there are no diamonds.
  4. What Workflow for which Information to produce which Publications: This is a team-centered approach. What processes are in place for your team to produce? To return to the diamond analogy, this step is the equivalent of cleaning, sorting, cutting, and transporting the freshly-mined diamonds for sale. How is information processed for publication in your organization?

Triples 1 and 2 are linked, as are 3 and 4. It is important to consider all of them together when working out an information strategy.

Above all else, keep asking the question, "How can information help us get what we want?"

If you know that you are communicating the right things to the right people at the right time in the right way, you're on the way to success. And if someone wants your flooring company to look like Facebook, you've got a plan to decide whether that's a good idea or not.