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Draining the Information Swamp

We’re not hydrologists, but it seems clear that the first thing to do when draining a swamp is to stop more water from leaking in. The same applies to an information swamp. Information not only needs to be better managed by information technologists as it “leaks in,” but also as it’s passed within an organization. IT shops are skilled at building information pipes using Internet connections, distributed ERP systems and even the old, back office systems running on mainframes. But as these pipes deliver an ever-rising tide of information to the desktop, organizations have been ineffective at putting it to effective and productive uses.

Recent studies by Northwestern University and the Brookings Institution attribute much of the past decade’s productivity gains to IT, however in day-to-day business operations, it may not feel that way. Unread e-mails piling up in inboxes, the message light on your desk phone flashing insistently and the stack of papers drifting off the edge of your desk: to paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, we know a swamp when we see one.

How does an IT shop go about dealing with this massive information influx; cease building more information pipes? While that might help for a short while, it’s probably not sustainable. The problem isn’t just that we have too many poorly organized and uncoordinated pipes, message centers or even spam filters. Mending these shortcomings may be necessary, but it’s far from sufficient. The root of the problem, as Stewart suggested, is that while we can recognize good information, many people have a very difficult time defining it in a way that supports automated selection and filtering.

As the knowledge economy grows, information continues to be a critical resource for any business and that information tide shouldn’t be stemmed. In other words, the desired outcome of a drained swamp isn’t an arid desert. But IT has a responsibility, as we build our information pipes, to reinforce healthier information consumption practices within our organizations to help deal with the information swamp. This responsibility extends beyond keeping anti-virus software on servers and begging users to not click on unfamiliar attachments.

Researching data flow techniques will help us understand what’s actually happening with all that information. For example, we can begin to work with other information professionals, like researchers and librarians, to understand how they manage their information. In addition, IT specialists can better understand the daily impact of the pipes we’re building by becoming a visible part of the organizations we work for and spreading the message that more information and more technology aren’t always better.
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Buckman Laboratories exemplifies the effective use of technology in support of organizational change. In 1978, this specialty chemical manufacturer was struggling against growing global competition. Then chief executive officer Bob Buckman shifted the company from a command-and control structure to a flexible, customer-driven organization: He wanted fewer managers and more sales engineers in the field. This transition required improved communication with customers and throughout the company’s disparate sales force. Buckman Labs achieved its turn-around goal through an artful blend of organization and technology. Avoiding fancy “solutions,” they implemented an infrastructure with proven technologies like e-mail, phones and laptops. Today, the innovation continues as employees at Buckman Labs are expected to share information and assist one another through K’Netix, e-mail-based forums. The organization is also focused on listening to employees and all questions are taken seriously. If no one in the forums can answer a query, a manager or librarian steps in and researches the question. Over time the Buckman K’Netix system has evolved, and today the company cites it as a reason for a 50-percent rise in new product sales.

As we shift from creating information pipes to understanding content, from bits and bytes to the bigger picture, IT professionals will also be moving from areas we control to areas that demand cooperation and shared power. It’s not a shift we can demand but a shift we must earn by becoming informed citizens of our organizations and providing pragmatic solutions for daily business operations. Then we can begin replacing the hip waders with knee boots and dream of walking through the information garden in regular shoes.

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Byron Glick is a principal at Coherent Partners, LLC, a technology management-consulting firm in Madison, Wisconsin. He can be contacted via the web at www.coherentpartners.com or via telephone at 608/442-0120.

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The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, & do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.

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