Want to Change Lives? Go into Information Science

This post originally appeared on CMSWire.

I’m going to start by making a bold claim to my peers – the millennials – in the workforce: If you want to change lives, don’t open a cupcake store or a cross-fit gym; go into information management.

Let me explain why.

The future of the workplace will be defined by shifts in technological capabilities and the expectations placed on those capabilities by workers. The influx of so-called “millennials” into the workplace that we have long been warned about has come to pass, and some organizations are having difficulty acclimating. I believe this is in part because this new workforce doesn’t see the work as meaningful. I think this is in part related to their expectations of technology in the workplace and the actual capabilities they find there.

(FYI this article is based entirely on two conversations I had this week, not on any broad studies, so take with a grain of salt.)

The World Needs Chefs

The first conversation was with an IT executive at a major oil company. As we discussed his upcoming initiatives, he mentioned that his department was having difficulty retaining young workers. Actually, his whole organization was having difficulty with employee retention in the “millennial” demographic.

A word of context: This organization offers spectacular employee benefits. It is one of the last to still provide a corporate pension for its employees. It also contributes $3 for every dollar an employee contributes to a 401k plan. And if you are flexible on your healthcare options (as many young people can afford to be), it will contribute up to $1,000 to your HSA account, which rolls over annually. Listen up, kids; that’s some real money over the course of a career.

But despite the benefits, young professionals aren’t sticking around. Why not?

My client shared a couple stories to illustrate what his company is facing. A couple of years ago, they hired a graduate of the University of Texas to do financial analysis on the profitability of a particular set of hydrocarbon products that the company was taking to market. Despite the technical language, this is work that can basically be done in Microsoft Excel. The young analyst quit after a year and went to culinary school. That’s fine; after all, the world needs chefs.

In another situation, the company hired a young woman with a computer science background for an application development team. To her shock, she was expected to code applications. To their shock, she didn’t know how. She left the company to start a cross-fit gym. That’s fine, too; the world needs gyms.

My client offered his thoughts. Young workers expect information management to happen in a black box like Google. You should just be able to throw all of your information in there and then summon whatever result you want back out. They don’t understand how to build things (i.e. write code). Young workers also seem incredulous that their professional career might be boring and repetitive – especially at the outset.

Earlier that same day I had lunch with information managers from many of Houston’s largest companies. During the lunch, someone made a presentation about auditing your information management program. And the presenter was a “millennial” – gasp. He harbored no false impressions that anyone in the audience was excited to hear what he had to say. But he led a room of 40 to 50 information managers from both the boomer and Gen X age groups through an erudite discussion of Audit and how it can benefit an information management program.

“I get that people think Audit is boring or intimidating,” he told me afterwards. “But it is super important in the corporate world. And it can elevate program concerns to the board level. That’s something that everyone in this room should be concerned about.”

I agree.

Expectations and Opportunities

I started this article by saying that the future of the workplace will be defined by shifts in technology and the expectations a new generation of workers place on those technologies. Now that we’ve added some context, let me offer some thoughts on that statement.

My client said that young workers just wanted to throw information in a black box and get answers back. This is a reasonable frustration for someone who has been building applications and solving business problems for 30 years. He feels that young people just want “Google” for their job.

But this is really a conversation about metadata. My client believes that the incoming generation of workers wants enterprise technology to be able to crawl and classify all of their structured and unstructured data. But this generation has been building web sites for grade-school presentations. They understand that metadata drives the look and feel of an application. They also have a higher expectation for the possibility of content being reused in a modular fashion, if it has been properly tagged.

The frustration of working in a corporate environment is that we have to classify and re-classify information, depending on the business process or application being used at the time. This frustration only increases when the requested metadata can (theoretically) be automatically obtained as part of the ingestion or processing of the information, prior to reaching a knowledge worker.

It’s analogous to calling your credit card provider and needing to tell the customer service agent your card number after already entering it on the phone. That’s an experience we should all want to eliminate in our workplace.

Let’s turn the conversation back to the younger workforce: It’s reasonable to expect the technology to be more sophisticated and the process to be better designed. But this is the exciting part: because you can change this. You have an opportunity to revolutionize the way information is used to drive our economy.

Over the past 20 years, organizations have been slowly eliminating paper from major processes. But the way that digital information is processed post-capture is in too many cases just a mirror of the paper process. There are opportunities to help organizations transform to truly digital workplaces. The potential long-term impact on profitability is immense, and people entering the workforce are going to be a part of that. It is an exciting time to be in information management.

Many of the young people entering the workforce are excited about making an impact in Audit, or in Information Management, or in Finance. But just as many wonder whether this work can be meaningful. I’ve written about why I think it is meaningful elsewhere, but a final thought:

The technologies and processes supporting information management in the corporate workplace may seem simplistic, or poorly designed, or disconnected, but each of these presents an opportunity to transform how work gets done. And since most people in this country work full time with these technologies and processes, this is one way to really change someone’s life.

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