information overload
Less than half of companies surveyed have an information management compliance culture. PHOTO: Jorge Franganillo

I would like to introduce a new managerial discipline I call "Information Management."

The thing we used to call Information Management has never been about information or management and it certainly hasn't been about managing information. 

It was a term of art used for activities accomplished by IT or Records Management professionals. I often tell co-workers (very tongue in cheek) that companies have institutional maturity around information management in the same way that we had institutional maturity around sexual harassment in the 1960s.

If we are going to have a productive discussion about Information Management we should define our terms, we should be consistent in our application of those terms and we should check our answers by comparing it to more mature managerial disciplines.

What Exactly Do We Mean?

Let's start with definitions. This is the dense and boring part. Skip it and move to the bold section if you're just looking for the big point.

A good definition will be necessary and sufficient. This means that it will tell us all that we need to know but will keep all the extras out. From this perspective then, "Management is the process of reaching organizational goals by working with and through people and other organizational resources.

Organizations have four types of assets that they manage: human, physical, financial and information. 

The work of management is to ensure these assets are used to achieve the goals of their organization. In general this means producing a profit for shareholders. (Charitable organizations and others obviously have different goals. But they certainly cannot squander these assets or they won't serve their goals very long!)

Finding a definition for information is more difficult. 

James Gleick who has written a tome on the history of information has noted that the Oxford English Dictionary has devoted 9,400 words to their definition. For our purposes information is all of the knowledge used to accomplish the goals of the organization. Information can be intangible, the knowledge, skills and experience an employee brings to the organization. 

This information is rarely codified and in many cases it cannot be codified. Information can also be tangible and codified in a variety of media: paper, electronic and the host of storage modes for each.

Let's be consistent in the application of our terms. What has passed for Information Management to date has been technology management.

Despite the efforts of management leaders like Peter Drucker and a host of other talking heads actual real life managers in actual real life companies do not have the skills or disciplines to manage information in the way that they manage financial, physical, or human assets.

When managers think about information management they think about the department Information Technology. And they think about applications to help them accomplish their goals and objectives. But at best this is merely technology management and it is not seen as a core responsibility of the manager. 

If managers treated their employees like they treat their information they would be asking Human Resources to do professional development, team building, and all of the other necessary leadership functions that we know are necessary to the manager's position.

I recently completed a certificate in executive management from the Mendoza School of Business at Notre Dame. The program is designed for working individuals who want to improve their management skills but do not have the time or inclination for a full MBA. 

The program covered everything from leadership to change management, from building growth strategies and financial models to overseeing mergers and acquisitions, and from optimizing margin enhancements to providing growth opportunities to your employees. 

But there wasn't a single lecture on how to manage information. There were several lectures on how we live in an information age and the importance of the knowledge worker. But the connection between those macro trends and the work of the manager were never made.

This is the critical challenge for managers today: to responsibly manage their information assets to drive value for their shareholders. 

To do so they must first understand that information management is a discipline that is owned primarily by managers and not an ancillary function like IT. They must then integrate information management into the broader responsibilities of "management" and not treat it as a separate/secondary responsibility.

In an article on "Management's Three Era's: A Brief History" Rita McGrath says that management has emphasized three aspects since its birth in the Industrial Revolution: execution, expertise, and empathy. She writes:

"Today, we are in the midst of another fundamental rethinking of what organizations are and for what purpose they exist. If organizations existed in the execution era to create scale and in the expertise era to provide advanced services, today many are looking to organizations to create complete and meaningful experiences."

We can look at the maturity of the management disciplines in a similar historic progression. The disciplines have always coexisted to some extent. 

But think of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. The emphasis on human assets was much different than it is today. Even watching an episode of Mad Men provides a sense of shock at workplace decorum in the same way seeing a doctor smoke in a hospital in a movie from the seventies rattles us. 

During the past decades management has become expert (or at least acknowledged the need for expertise) in topics like process optimization and safety. Information Management requires a similar evolution.

When we ask who should own information management the answer isn't a new C-Suit position like Chief Information Governance Officer, it isn't Records Managers or anyone in IT, it isn't any one centralized person at all. It is a management discipline that needs to be owned by managers throughout the organization.

I want to end with a couple thoughts on the key challenges facing managers and the disciplines they would need to adopt to mature.

Key Challenges

Managers face several key information based challenges. Type 1 is related to information that exists in the organization in paper or electronic. Type 2 is information that only exists in the experience, knowledge, and skills of the workers that are being managed. So the initial challenges include:

Need for an effective approach to identifying and assessing key documentation supporting processes and sub-processes (Type 1)

  • Need to identify where users believe there are gaps in documentation for key functional areas and to identify specific tasks requiring further documentation (Type 1 and 2)
  • Need to gain expert user input on current documentation of policies, procedures, and work guides (Type 2)

Need to identify functional areas where loss of institutional knowledge presents risk (Type 2):

  • Need to prioritize which gaps to fill based on risk in the immediate, near-term, and long term (Type 2)

Need to develop a demonstrable process for how departmental documentation will be created and maintained going forward (Type 1):

  • Need to define  which channels to provide documentation (i.e. paper, email, share drive, SharePoint, mobile, etc.) (Type 1)

There are many more challenges related to the safety of customer information (PII or PCI), trade secrets, complying with legal, compliance and regulatory requirements, etc. But the above list begins to shift the discussion of information management away from the traditional realm of technology or records management and attempts to see the problems from a managers perspective.  

There is enormous opportunity for management to continue to mature as a discipline and for information to provide more value to every part of the business. 

This conversation has not breached necessary topics like data analysis, automation, digital experience management, communication management and others that will be necessary for managers depending on their the line of business they serve. 

But conversations around these topics that attempt to integrate them into the management practice would be extremely helpful for our industry. I would love to hear other ideas or feedback in the comments section.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  Title image by Jorge Franganillo.