CMSWire: Technology Can't Ever Solve the Information Management Problem

This post originally appeared on the CMSWire blog.

We're living in an exciting time for information management: cloud storage has become ubiquitous, mobile devices provide a functional (though not yet entirely optimal) experience for end users, some disruptive entrants have pushed the envelope, venerable leaders have begun to execute on powerful innovations, and, at least in theory, managing information better seems to be an aspiration of organizations across nearly every vertical. Not to mention the vibrant community of information management practitioners available on the web through Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and more blog sites than you could ever hope to read.

Yet despite all the great things happening in information management, it seems like most firms are as bad at managing information as they’ve ever been — and in some respects even worse: terabytes (or petabytes) of legacy content rotting on legacy systems, many of which systems were “replaced” almost a decade ago but never decommissioned; insanely expensive shelf ware intended originally to manage information or processes or both, but never adopted by end users; and an explosion of tools and repositories driven by a federated model of SharePoint deployment and the consumerization of IT. The end result being ever more information not being managed properly, in an ever-expanding set of tools, to the detriment of the entire organization.

So what gives? How can we have expended so much time and energy on trying to manage information better over the last two decades, yet have so little to show for it?

We Want What We Can’t Have

Unlike most of my Doculabs’ colleagues, I’ve been wrestling with the enterprise information management problem for only 14 years now, not the 20-plus years the rest of them have. But I have my own theory on why information management has been so difficult for most firms to address, despite all the time, money, and technology applied to it – and it goes something like this: We want desperately to solve the information management problem, but we also want desperately for technology (both the software/hardware as well as the department) to do the lion’s share of the work for us so we can go about our day-to-day jobs.

And sure, at some level we all know that it’s about more than simply technology, but I’d go further and say that solving the information management problem has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with technology; it’s solely a people/process issue — which explains why we’ve made so little progress over the last 20 years. I.e. we keep hoping that the next category of technology, the next wave of disruption, or the next new domain will be the answer. But the answer has been with us all along, even before we had software and hardware to apply to information management: Poor information management stems from poor business processes – exacerbated, to be sure, by poor technology, but not caused (or solved) by it.

Fix the Process

I’ve seen $40 million businesses run swimmingly on a jerry-built Access database and $40 million world-class engineering drawing systems used as glorified shared drives; I’ve seen huge information management programs (with huge budgets) be totally ineffective and edge-of-the-desk groups (with little to no budget) be transformative; and I’ve seen software vendors work tirelessly to push the envelope of capabilities, yet almost all the organizations I work with just want to get the basics right.

There’s an instructive analog in manufacturing, where many of the most sophisticated and successful Lean shops don’t use any software at all to monitor and report on the shop floor, but rather physical signs and flags (kanban). Most of these are homemade and hopelessly crude-seeming, compared to what we might expect from world-class manufacturers like Toyota or General Electric, as Figure 1 illustrates. But despite being low tech, they’re effective – so much so that one of the first things many Lean consultants do is remove the fancy-pants, high-tech kanban tools in place to implement lower-tech kanban tools that not only work, but cost less.

shepley kan ban

Figure 1 — Kanban for Indicating Low Parts Inventory to Trigger Reorder

No Answers

For those of you hoping for a definitive answer here, I’ll apologize now, because I don’t have one. Until 3 or 4 years ago, my time working in information management was almost solely focused on solving the problem from a technology perspective. And what kept me going despite the difficulties was the 18-month hype cycle: i.e. just when you’re exasperated with where you’re at, a new technology disruption hits that promises to solve the problem. And you say, “No wonder I couldn’t solve the problem before! This new innovation will be the answer,” and you pick up and move on — only to find yourself in the same place 18 months down the line.

But in 2011, something clicked for me. I don’t know whether it was a SharePoint 2010 hype hangover, or hearing about the transformative disruption of cloud, or big data, or social, or Enterprise 3.0 for the N-millionth time, but it occurred to me that managing information better has no intrinsic value unless it transforms the business in a meaningful way. And it further occurred to me that, even if all these disruptions delivered on their promises, none of us really had any idea about how they were going to meaningfully transform the business, beyond futuristic buzzwords and consulting platitudes.

So I decided to focus on what does transform the business in a meaningful way: people/process improvement, and then find the ways that information management could support that improvement. Some of this may involve technology, though much of it does not, and all of it impacts how an organization does business day in and day out to increase revenues or reduce costs or increase margins (or some combination of all three). None of which means that I love technology any less or geek out any less intensively about the latest big thing, but I’m working hard to keep it in perspective and focus my practice on what really matters: the work done by the business and how to make it better.

Rich Medina
Joe Shepley
I’m VP and Practice Lead, focusing on developing Doculabs’ InfoSec practice and its applications in a wide range of industries.