Have you ever considered the different words used to discuss the management of information? Big data. Structured data. Unstructured data. Records. Document management. Content management. Information management. Knowledge management. Digital Transformation. These words are often used interchangeably by the unconsciously incompetent, without regard for their varied and specific meanings.
When an organisation starts out on the road to managing information digitally, it’s my observation that you’ll hear many of these words tossed around like confetti at a wedding. It’s a new and exciting frontier for the organisation, and people are often exuberant thanks to the whole novelty of it. But when it comes down to brass tacks of implementation, there’s often not a lot of deep thinking done about how the implementation should actually be done. The information management implementation project is treated as if it’s a tactical implementation of technology, rather than part of a strategy to deploy a new information architecture to the business, that just happens to be supported by a systems architecture.
Organisations seek to implement things like ‘data analytics’ because it’s a good thing to do, rather than thinking critically about whether it’s the best choice to make in how they use their resources. Or they’ll look to deploy a SharePoint solution without thinking through how they will ensure that SharePoint becomes the single source of the truth, avoiding the use of network drives or email attachments for the storage of information.
The root cause of the confused use of terms and the tactical deployment of technology is the same: a lack of strategic thinking about the management of information and data.
I’m not the only one who thinks this is so. In a recent Sloan Management Review article, the fact that strategy, not technology, drives digital transformation, is writ large (Kane, Palmer, Phillips, Kiron, & Buckley, 2015). The authors explore and explain why executives who think they’re in a technology arms race are focusing on the wrong area.
So how does one take even a consciously incompetent organisation down the path of creating a digital strategy?
The first action is to evaluate the organisational strategy. If the strategy consists of a slogan and a set of values then there is a crushing need to start again. A coherent strategy needs to be developed based on choices between competing alternatives, aimed to achieve an end state that can be expressed and measured numerically, which is bound by a date.
Once an appropriate strategy has been developed, the next step is to develop an information technology strategy that delivers a symbiotic information architecture and systems architecture that enables access to reliable information by those with a need to know at their point of need. Creating a symbiotic information architecture and systems architecture has to be an interactive process. It calls for the key business processes which need to be delivered efficiently and effectively to be placed at the centre of thinking.
For instance, imagine we need access to up-to-date plans from a single source of the truth for all of the pumping stations in a water utility in order to ensure safe operations and safe maintenance practices. That will create specific requirements in terms of the information we collect, how we store it, how we analyse and report it, and how we store the reports and knowledge gained from the analysis. In addition, it creates requirements of how we allow people to access the single source of the truth for the plans. It may be through access to our CAD system, or through our EDRMS to a final pdf rendition of our most up to date drawing. We then have to determine what security is needed for access to the drawing.
Repeating such tasks for the key processes which will enable us to execute our strategy gives us a clear view of the required architecture of our systems and the information they manage. In addition, we get a view of the protocols in data exchange, and the functionality of software necessary. We must be aware of the 80/20 rule in undertaking this effort. Twenty percent of our processes will determine eighty percent of the architecture, protocols, and functionality we should have. Our organisational strategy determines which twenty percent of processes drive our information technology and information management strategies.
The next stage is to determine what we are capable of delivering over what timeframe. Two models and accompanying documentation are useful in determining what we are capable of.
One is our one digital transformation model, based on research into successful and unsuccessful EDRMS implementations across 107 organisations. The model describes the environmental characteristics that, when present, support a successful implementation. It comprises six components, each with three elements. The components are:
- Strategic Vision
- Executive Leadership
- Project Capability
- Change Management
- Business Integration
- Skills Development
We know from our research that if implementation projects can tick off seventy percent of the elements as being in place, there will be high levels of adoption of good records and information management practices. We also know, sadly, that if less than forty percent of the elements can be ticked off, failure follows.
Expensive failures, that is, where millions can be spent or adoption rates of less than one percent.
The second model relates to one particular element and it is to do with the existing records and information management maturity. There are a couple of similar models around, but the best one we know is the NSW State Archives model of information asset management maturity.
What we know from research and experience is that it is best to move up the levels of maturity slowly, gaining a common language and understanding on the simpler low risk processes first.
Organisations that try to move from largely electronic records filed with only a modicum of actual structure and hard copy files in archives or various office based physical filing systems to fully digital in one step, fail. They fail because of a lack of understanding of just how difficult it is to change the personal information management habits of individuals, while overcoming fear of loss of control or power at the same time.
Many organisations we have spoken to claim their projects haven’t failed, because they consider the final output of the implementation to be a functional computer system. However, without detailed measurement of the actual business outcomes of the implementation – such as adoption of new practice, improved productivity, and reduced risk – the truth is that often the money spent on the implementation will have changed very little on the ground, and information management will be just as fractured, risky, and unproductive as it was before.
Which takes us back to the start; if you don’t have a strategy then all you are doing is making technology available. And technology in itself rarely, if ever, provides a measurable benefit without the changed behaviours, habits, and processes to go with it.
Kane, G. C., Palmer, D., Phillips, A. N., Kiron, D., & Buckley, N. (2015). Strategy, not technology, drives digital transformation: becoming a digitally mature enterprise. Retrieved from Sloan Management Review: http://sloanreview.mit.edu/projects/strategy-drives-digital-transformation