Information Management I: Many of the things

Given the target: to maintain control of all of the things all of the time the importance of information is immediately clear.

Information is however characterized by the following traits:

  1. It increases in volume continuously
  2. It changes
  3. It is subject to interpretation

Facts are the rare exception to this rule, but few of us have the privilege to operate in this dream world of absolutes all the time.

Organizations in the modern world typically have sourced the guarantee the first point is achieved. These same sources (e.g. email) also facilitate easily the second point. And finally, the third point is introduced with email as authors will view facts differently, add opinion and tone in an attempt to enhance their message.

The size of the challenge this situation presents is significant. After all the key point of gathering information is to use it. Using information turns it into knowledge making it more valuable so the time investment you make in gathering information match the value you get from it. This allows you to apply some simple tests to your organization and makes some improvements.

  • The curse of email; are you using email as your prime information sharing system? If you are then you have a problem. Email threads get taken off topic, to and cc lists change and the volume of email is often huge.
  • Do you use all of the information you gather? If you aren’t turning the information into knowledge for some purpose that benefits the organization – just stop collecting it.
  • Do you spend more time gathering than analyzing? The valuable using the information should receive more attention than simply getting it.
  • Are the costly people in your organization gathering information? Often senior staff will spend time gathering, this highlights a problem – these people are the ones who should be doing the knowledge generation.

Quick tests over – I highly doubt every one of those questions was answered positively. So you like the rest of us have an information problem. Before going any further let me make one thing clear – it will never be perfect. Right. Real World considered we can get on to fixing the problems (using the medical method – add proper name here)

Step One: Diagnosis

Before you can manage the organizational information you are faced with you must survey the organization – what information are you trying to manage? This is the time to identify things people think they need but don’t use and don’t have but would really like. The volume of information is now identified and key things like how often things change and how long you need to have it available (do you really need the sales figures from 10-years ago – nostalgia yes, but useful quite possibly not).

Once you have done this it is time to apply a key principle of information management:

Capture once – use many times.

How many of us in organizations need and use the same information our colleagues and yet have an entirely separate way of capturing and maintaining that data? It’s a common problem. It is also why integrated management systems (explore those here) are big business.

But I am in a small organization and have no budget to implement such a system. Ah-ha so I’ll bet you’ve used a series of cunning spreadsheets, perhaps with pivot tables or lookup functions to make things work – sorry. Bad idea.

Spreadsheets have their place but information management is not their area of expertise. What you need is a database. Sorry – go on a course, learn how to use them. Nope, your spreadsheets are flawed – databases (like this one)  are better. Nope, they really are. – Here’s an example common to many small businesses.

The sales team have a sales sheet, that captures contact details or names of clients, values of work perhaps and maybe historical records of discussions. The projects team track project progress for the same clients and report in their own spreadsheet. The accounts team monitor financial performance in their own way. Every time a client or piece of work changes you have multiple groups making a range of updates.

In a simple database the key details of your clients are defined, managed once and then the discrete pieces of information relevant to each group are monitored. This would freely allow managers to look at summary knowledge about clients, and in this example projects people to add to records of client contacts just like the sales team – after all, who talks to clients more than the people working with them day to day.

Step Two: Come up with a solution

Turn what you learned in step one into an information management plan. For each group of information you will know, some or all of the following:

  • How much of it exists
  • Who needs it and how often
  • How regularly it changes
  • What happens to it
  • How long you need to keep it
  • How long it takes to create
  • The impact of not having it

This last point will allow to both prioritize your development of a solution and give you and when combined with how often it is used give you a good idea about how and when information should be backed up. In a modern organization, backups are typically ever increasing in size and over time become costly to complete and store – you can manage this situation.

If you have done all the steps to get to this point the size of the challenge will probably be clear. So how about some soothing words of comfort regarding what the solution might look like?

  1. A couple of simple databases used my separate groups in your organization that share common information
  2. A series of defined meetings – with regular outputs – stored in… a database!
  3. A set of rules for email management (An example will be added here)
  4. Implementation of some shared email accounts, see I am a realist email is not going anywhere soon
  5. Selection and implementation of some software tools (I will put a list here)
  6. And most important – a training plan (if you are in doubt, go read the Change Management section again, once written)

This should go without saying but SHARE THE PLAN. It will help everyone in your organization understand the WHY.

Step Three: Give the medicine

Chances are this is a significant step. It will often represent a step change in how your organization operates. So, go read about Change Management – it is a big subject.

Back now… let’s keep going.

Step Four: Monitor the patient

To complete effective monitoring we can simply go back to our original questions:

  • The curse of email; are you using email as your prime information sharing system?
  • Do you use all of the information you gather?
  • Do you spend more time gathering than analyzing?
  • Are the costly people in your organization gathering information?

Checking on these items will determine how effective the medicine has been. Remember though you must check them at an appropriate frequency. Some information is gathered and used weekly, other information is only gathered yearly so consider this fact when monitoring improvements.

Step Five: Adjust the dosage or change the medicine

Anyone who has ever seen a medical TV drama will know that unless you are 55-minutes into the hour-long episode the medicine being applied is not the right one to elicit that magical recovery. Organizations also follow this rule. It is the real world – you will need to adjust the medicine – but with each change, you will get closer to a solution, or perhaps further away but if you keep monitoring then at least you will know things are not going as planned.