How to Really Manage Information

A version of this blog post originally appeared on CMSWire.

To date, “information management” has been something closer to technology management. Today’s real-life managers have neither the skills nor the disciplines to manage information comparable to how they manage their financial, physical, or human assets.

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.)

"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.

Finding a definition for information is more difficult.

James Gleick, author of a tome on the history of information, has noted that the Oxford English Dictionary has devoted 9,400 words to its definition of the term. For our purposes, information is all of the knowledge used to accomplish the goals of the organization. Note that information can be intangible – e.g. the knowledge, skills, and experience an employee brings to the organization.

Much of this information is tangible and codified in a variety of media: paper, electronic, and the host of storage modes for each. But there are also many cases in which it cannot be codified.

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 such as Peter Drucker and a host of other talking heads, actual, real-life managers in actual, real-life companies do not have the skills or the disciplines to manage information in a way comparable to how they manage financial, physical, or human assets.

When managers think about information management, they think about the Information Technology (IT) department. And they think about the technology applications that they use to help them accomplish their goals and objectives. But, at best, this is merely technology management and is not regarded among the manager’s core responsibilities.

They Don’t Teach It in B-School, Either

I recently completed a certificate in executive management from the Mendoza School of Business at Notre Dame, in a program designed for working individuals who want to improve their management skills but don’t 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 was never made.

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

To do so, they must first understand that information management is a discipline that’s owned primarily by managers – not by an ancillary function like IT. They must then integrate information management into the broader responsibilities of “management” and no longer treat it as a separate or secondary responsibility.

In "Management's Three Eras: A Brief History," Rita McGrath of the Columbia Business School 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 as 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 100 years ago. Even Mad Men provides a sense of shock at workplace decorum in the same way we can be jolted by seeing a doctor smoke in a hospital in a movie from the 1970s.

In recent decades management has become expert (or at least acknowledged the need for expertise) in topics such as process optimization and safety. I contend that information management requires a similar evolution.

When we ask who should own information management, the answer isn't a new C-suite position like Chief Information Governance Officer; it isn't records managers or anyone in IT; it isn't any one centralized person at all. No, information management is a management discipline that needs to be owned by managers throughout the organization.

Key Challenges

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

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

  • Need for an effective approach to identify and assess 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 (Types 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, shared drive, SharePoint, mobile, etc. (Type 1)

There are many more challenges related to the safety of customer information (whether PII or PCI), trade secrets, compliance with legal and regulatory requirements, etc. But the above list is an attempt to shift the discussion of information management away from the traditional realm of technology or records management and to show the problems from a manager’s 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 any of the other necessary topics (e.g. data analysis, or automation, digital experience management, communication management) that will be necessary for managers, depending on which 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 on these questions.

Rich Medina
Lane Severson
I’m a Practice Leader, managing relationships with Doculabs’ West Coast clients to improve information management and security.