Thornton May

Rediscovering the value of information

Sep 26, 20235 mins
Data ArchitectureData ManagementPrivacy

By emphasizing information technology over information management, we have exposed ourselves to what poor information practices can cost us, not what robust information strategies can create.

Concentrated businesswoman ceo at laptop, working at office desk with documents, searching surfing web internet online
Credit: Inside Creative House / Shutterstock

In his dissertation at Stanford in 1976, smartphone pioneer and founder and CEO of General Magic Marc Porat correctly prophesied that the future would be defined by “information machines, information workers, and information companies.”

Today, there is general consensus that we live in an “Information Society” and work in an “Information Economy.” What is surprising is that despite the information intensity of modern existence — for example, 3.5 billion searches per day — one would be hard pressed to identify specific strategies for creating value with information.

It is high time to get serious about information management. Not information technology — information management. Technology does not equal progress. Creating value with information is what constitutes progress.

Executive briefings and annual reports are full of “this is how much we are spending on hot new technologies” factoids. Depending on which subscription research firm you prefer, we know the world is spending a lot on information technology — say, $4.6 trillion. Analyst firm Deep Analysis posits that the 400-plus vendor market for intelligent document processing alone could grow to $4 billion by the end of 2026.

But having entered an age of post-Gutenberg economics in which it costs virtually nothing to generate information, shouldn’t we stop focusing our attention on the costs of the machines and systems that create information and instead shift it to the economics of creating value (and meaning) from information? Does anyone actually know how much we are spending to make sure key decision-makers have the information they need?

Time to create information strategies

Every two or three years we are reminded how easy it is to destroy value via poor information management practices. A recent example being the case of Jack Teixeira, a 21-year-old “Cyber Transport Systems Journeyman” assigned to the 102nd Intelligence Wing, headquartered at Otis Air National Guard Base within Joint Base Cape Cod. Teixeira was indicted for the willful retention and transmission of classified national defense information, having allegedly shared sensitive national secrets with video gaming buddies.

This incident has called into the question the entire legitimacy of the processes associated with managing sensitive government information. And here, the government isn’t alone.

In the corporate sector, the value destroyed by poor information management practices is often measured in fines and lawsuit payouts. But before such catastrophes come to light, what metrics do we use — or should we use — to determine whether a publicly traded company has their information management house in order? Who manages information more effectively — P&G or Unilever; Coke or Pepsi; GM or Ford; McDonald’s or Chipotle; Marriot or Hilton? When interviewing a potential new hire, how should we ascertain whether they are a skilled and responsible information manager?

Business historians tell us that it was about 10 years before the turn of the century that “information” — previously thought to be a universal “good thing” — started being perceived as a problem. About 20 years after the invention of the personal computer, the general population started to feel overwhelmed by the amount of information being generated. We thrive on information, we depend on information, and yet we can also choke on it. We have available to us more information than one person could ever hope to process.

The information narrative changed from being very positive to darker metaphors and analogies portraying information as “an unstoppable steamroller” or as “a river. A very polluted river.”

One of my pals from the futurist rubber-chicken circuit, new-media professor Clay Shirky, now vice provost at New York University, famously remarked, “It’s not information overload; it’s filter failure.” This begs the question of information strategy. Do you personally have a strategy for creating value with the information resources available to you? Does your organization have such a strategy?

Creating value with information

We are all information scientists. We may not have degrees from an i-school or be a member of a trade or professional organization focused on information management, such as the Association for Intelligent Information Management or ARMA, but each of us creates, organizes, manages, stores, retrieves, and uses information.

Some actors in the economy are thinking long and hard about information strategies. On April 12, 1994, Laurence Canter and Martha Siegel, a married team of Arizona lawyers, embarked on the first ever mass spamming when they posted to over 6,000 Usenet newsgroups an unsolicited commercial. They had an information strategy that generated over $100,000 in revenue and cost pennies. I am not condoning this information strategy, just acknowledging that if one wants to create value with information one better have a strategy for doing so.

An information strategy has to deal with several foundational challenges: how to prevent finite attention spans being overloaded with unwanted information and how to prevent personal and sensitive information from becoming public, just as a start.

The returns on crafting effective information management strategies are significant.

Thornton May

Thornton May is a futurist. He has designed and delivered executive education programs at UCLA, UC-Berkeley, Babson, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, THE Ohio State University [where he co-founded and directs the Digital Solutions Gallery program], and the University of Kentucky. His book, The New Know: Innovation Powered by Analytics examines the intersection of the analytic and executive tribes.

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