I’ve found a strong resonant note with my observations (and exhortations!) about IT’s transformation from technologist to informationist.
But I’m being asked more frequently – where do I (or we) get started?
We see what you’re saying in our own shop – costs are rising, risks are increasing and we’re not exploiting the value of the information we already have.
But it’s not clear how we get from where we are to where we need to be.
I can’t provide the magic formula, but I’d like to offer a few thoughts that might be helpful.
The Informationist Manifesto
The basic idea is that if you believe that information is your most important asset, you’re going to need to organize and act that way.
But we’ve built our IT world one project, one application at a time. And behind each application, there’s a silo of information that goes with it.
Going farther, it’s not clear who’s in charge. Where will the mandate come from? Where will the support come from? Where will the funding come from?
The first step is to extend the mandate of IT – from being the guys who run the plumbing to the guys who assume the mandate for owning corporate information management issues.
Much like a CFO is responsible for protecting, optimizing and leveraging the company’s financial assets across multiple business units and functions, I strongly believe that the CIO will need to eventually assume the role of doing pretty much the same thing for the company’s information assets.
Yes, our CFOs work with individual business units to understand their needs and come up with workable solutions (much like IT does today), but the real role of the CFO is to ensure consistency across the entire domain, and tackle the real strategic issues that are beyond any one department or business unit.
Put differently, you don’t often see individual business units driving different approaches to accounting, budgeting, measurement, finance, risk management, revenue recognition, SOX ccompliance and so on.
Good CFOs do that on behalf of the business.
But you don’t see too many IT organizations doing the same thing for information: how will information is protected, how will it be optimized, how will it be leveraged in new ways?
I can’t tell you how many sessions I’ve been through where I hear the IT guys share that they don’t feel empowered to start moving in the right direction.
Step one is to make it part of your mandate – even if you can’t make significant progress right away.
IT Evolution Can Be A Barrier
One fundamental barrier is the natural evolution of how the business views IT. There are clear and distinct phases to how an organization approaches the whole business of IT, and this, in turn, can either be an enabler or a barrier to IT assuming the informationist role.
For an excellent and thorough discussion on this essential topic, please see my recommended reading.
Simply put, it isn’t until an organization comes to grip with enterprise architecture issues (in a business sense, not a technology sense), that there’s a clear and visible mandate for the informationist.
But, rather than wait for corporate evolution to take its inevitable and plodding course, what can we do to accelerate matters?
And There Are Other Distractions ...
Sometimes this discussion gets entangled in the whole SOA discussion. The idea is that -- while we’re re-architecting our entire application environment around modular services and middleware -- we’ll fix the information problem.
Possible, but unlikely.
Yes, the whole SOA process gives IT an opportunity to put the whole mess on the table and think things through again, but SOA as described and practiced today doesn’t begin address fundamental issues around the ownership of information.
Informationist concepts can be implemented with SOA, but SOA isn’t a replacement for an informationist perspective.
And, on a more practical note, I think that many companies will be forced into action to manage their information better long before enterprise-scale SOA environments become commonplace.
Other folks trot out the 1990s discussion around master data management, data integrity, and all the issues we wrestled with as we went to integrated enteprise applications.
Good discussion, but not really what we're talking about here.
And some people just want to wait until there's a big pile of funding, and a staff ready to go before tackling a problem. That doesn't happen very much in my world, does it happen in yours?
My suggestion looks like a 1-2-3 recipe.
Please keep in mind, I can only sketch out the ideas at the highest level; there’s such situational diversity that I can’t possibly cover all the cases and permutations.
The First Step – Prepare To Assume Leadership
So many people wait for an organizational mandate to begin working on a big problem. My suggestion – assume the mandate. That way you’ll look real smart when it actually becomes a mandate, which is as inevitable as global warming, in my book.
So much has been written in the business literature about leadership in large organizations, how it evolves, what kind of person is successful at it.
If you’re the type of person that likes to tackle big problems with no clear corporate mandate, this one’s for you.
I can promise you that it’ll be an interesting intellectual journey, and you’ll end up with a better understanding of the business you work for than most folks.
To prepare to assume leadership, you’ll need to boil your thinking down to a set of clear, concise messages about what you want to do, and why.
Hint: if you can’t deliver your message in 30 seconds, you have more work to do.
There are three versions of this story: one that emphasizes value generation, one that emphasizes risk avoidance, and one that emphasizes cost reduction. Even though a good informationist strategy will deliver all three, you’ll be best served by focusing on one.
Here’s an example for a theoretical manufacturer, emphasizing value generation:
“XYZ Manufacturing Company is experiencing a fundamental shift in its business model.
We are becoming a global company in a flat world. Our high-value work is now being done by knowledge workers; the rest is a candidate for outsourcing or offshoring.
How we used information in the past will be different than how we will need to use it in the near future. Rather than recording what has happened in the past, it will drive what we do in the future.
We have an opportunity to anticipate this shift, and create the IT environment that targets what we are becoming, rather than what we have been.
If we manage this shift correctly, we have the opportunity to lower costs, enter new markets more rapidly, differentiate our company, react to new market conditions faster, and put our competitors at a disadvantage.
If we fail to do so, the exact opposite will be our challenge: we will face higher costs, struggle to get to market in time, and lose differentiation to those who have made the shift.”
Or, perhaps, this kind of message for a company that might be more risk-adverse
“ABC Insurance Company is now essentially an information company. Our business is predicated around gathering vast amounts of information and putting it to work.
But with this comes an increasing responsibility to protect the privacy of the customers we serve, to secure their personal information in ways that protect our company, our brand and our relationships with our customers, in the face of entirely new threats and an increasingly hostile regulatory environment.
Unless we begin to take strategic steps to protect information in a direct and auditable manner, we risk unfavorably publicity, legislative involvement with our business practices, and ultimately the loss of market share and shareholder value.”
Or, finally, something like this for a company that is extremely cost-sensitive.
“Our company is awash in information. We are spending proportionally more of our revenue in equipment and people to store, protect, and manage this information, and are doing so without a proportional rise in associated value.
We believe that this is a result of our failing to look at our company’s information portfolio on an enterprise basis. And we are experiencing poor utilization, ineffective management and failing to gain the benefits of scale as a result.”
Three rousing mandates, each with a slightly different focus.
The Second Step – Assemble Your Team
You’ve got your virtual mandate – enough people have heard your message, and agree with you.
Now is the time to start assembling a team of like-minded leaders like yourself, and form a working group. Make it informal and fun.
First, there are a few stakeholders you’re going to want on your team from specific functions.
If you’re focusing on risk, you’re going to want the legal guys involved.
If you’re focused on cost reduction, make sure that finance has a seat at the table.
And if you’re focused on value generation, make sure that you’ve got a few functions that are “under served” from an information perspective. Logical candidates are sometimes customer service, or marketing, or the sales force. Also consider including the people who think they own the information today.
Optics are important here. If this is seen as an IT thing, you may not get the enthusiasm you’ll need. This is a strategic company thing – and you need the best minds.
Call yourself the “information management leadership team”.
Spend a few meetings exploring all the different aspects of the problem: what are the symptoms, how did it get that way, what will happen if it continues?
Stay clear of jargon and defensiveness – it won’t help you here.
Don’t drive for an immediate solution or action plan.
Start to gather evidence that there really is a problem.
If cost-reduction is your focus, get some nice data points plotting information management expenditures against revenue and margins. Or perhaps utilization of information resources. Mix hard data and a few anecdotes.
BTW, do not underestimate the power of anecdotes. A good story beats twelve powerpoint slides any day of the week.
If value generation is your focus, compare and contrast what the company did just a few years ago, and what it’ll need to do in the next few years. Focus on how the basic work processes have changed. If you have any insight into what your competitors are doing, that helps as well. You’re trying to create a picture that the company will need to use information differently in the future.
If risk reduction is your focus, just read the newspaper. Collect all those awful headlines of companies who didn’t manage information properly, and summarize them. There are some doozies that’ll make people pucker. Make sure that people know that – there, but for the grace of God – goes our company.
In any of these plays, it’s important not to put people on the defensive. Lots of effort is being made to by lots of hard-working people to mediate some or all of these issues. The point is that you can’t be effective unless you frame the problem as an organizational and strategic problem.
Summarize the discussion and findings, and start publishing to a wider audience. I don’t know how your company works, but at EMC we use email to get people involved. If you’re more progressive, consider an internal blog or wiki.
Make sure that anyone and everyone who’s interested can see what’s going on. Be completely transparent – it helps to move the process along. Invite others to join – the more brainpower the better.
The Third Step – Pick A Place To Start
Many top-down management leadership teams fail to achieve success because they try to too much, and end up doing not much of anything at all.
If you need a spreadsheet or project plan to communicate status, you’re trying to do too much. If you can keep it in your head, that’s about the right size.
My suggestion would be to pick a very visible “quick win” project to demonstrate the value of the cross-functional approach (and the informationist perspective), and then build on that success.
If you’re focused on cost reduction, an information archiving project (files, emails, etc.) might be a good starting point.
Even low-key email archiving and tiering projects can show real returns on investment, and lay the groundwork for wrestling with tough issues such as policy and user engagement.
If you’re focused on risk reduction, the legal guys are your first customer. Lawyers understand risk mitigation. Email is a logical place, or establishing a repository of compliant records might be a good start.
If you’re a bit more ambitious, you might want to take on an e-discovery project. Working on risk-reduction projects can be easier, because you’re working with one customer (legal) and they usually have budget.
If you’re focused on value generation, you might want to build a collaboration environment that has workflow, search, repositories and so on. Finding a sub-group of knowledge workers who are “under served” and building an environment for them might be a logical place to start, although getting to ROI will take some creativity.
Hint: find a group with some budget ;-)
Act Locally, Think Globally …
This may sound like plenty, but there’s a few important concepts you’ll need to keep in the back of your mind as you start to build your information infrastructure.
First: sooner or later information infrastructure gets used for all three aspects we’ve discussed: cost reduction, risk avoidance and value generation. Even though you’re only focused on one aspect to get the ball rolling, frame and design the approach as if you’re doing all three.
It’s an “aha” moment in the informationist world – that one solution can deliver all three – that is, if you think of it the right way.
Email archiving is a perfect example: you can justify it on cost savings, risk reduction or value creation. So when you design it, think about the future uses of the information. You don’t want to do three separate email archiving projects – you want to put in single architecture and enable more functionality over time as the organization evolves.
To be specific, you don’t need much metadata from email to achieve cost reduction. Simply archive the old stuff. However, you’ll need more metadata to achieve risk reduction (what was in that email?), and even more to achieve value generation (what key concepts are in this email, and how does it relate to other objects?).
Going a bit further, if you’re only thinking cost reduction, you’ll be tempted to archive email in such a way that only email users can get to them. However, when you get to risk reduction, you’ll need an alternate non-email view of that same information. And when you get to knowledge management and value creation, you’ll need a different view of the same information.
That’s why we see people doing email archiving over and over again – the first project is just a step in a much longer journey. So you’ve been warned.
Second, acknowledge sooner or later the problem space will span all information types.
What you do for email will be desired for files – it’s only a matter of time. What you do for email and files will be desired eventually for production databases. And voice. And images. And so on.
If it’s information, and it’s potentially valuable, it should be on your radar screen – it’s only a matter of time.
Put differently, the business objectives don’t really care – at a macro level – whether the information is part of one application or another. It’s information. So plan accordingly.
Finally, realize that you’re working at the very heart of a very strategic set of issues.
People and politics will come into play. The organization probably won’t be aligned around what you’re trying to do. Funding and approvals will probably be very challenging, to say the least.
This Has Happened Before – Sort Of
I like to go back to earlier examples of similar exercises IT and the business have gone through in wrestling with major strategic issues.
In some respects, it’s like the mid-90s when people were starting to get enamored with integrated ERP applications.
Or the early 90’s when we struggled to justify large investments in networking infrastructure.
Or, on a more fundamental level, when we started putting PCs and terminals on everyone’s desk, and had to look at IT in a whole new way.
My thought is that – periodically – IT and the business go through a major inflection point, and learn to deal with information in an entirely different way.
And I think such an opportunity is upon us now.
Are you an informationist?