Making "IT" Work for You
by D. Keith Denton

Peter Drucker is generally regarded as the foremost management consultant. This advisor to some of the world's largest mult-national corporations provides a CEO's perspective on information technology. He believes that there is an information revolution under way. The revolution questions the meaning of information, and its purpose. He states that until now, the information revolution has centered on the collection, storage, transmission, analysis, and representation of information. But things are changing, and it will engulf all the major institutions of modern society.

Drucker believes the information technology establishment has so far largely ignored this information revolution. He reasons that past computer and information technology has had barely any impact on strategic decisions. He has observed that current use of information does not affect management decisions. He believes that current use of information technology has little to do with a CEO deciding whether to build a new office building, school, hospital, and so forth. The current approach to information technology has had no noticeable impact on the decision of an equipment manufacturer to enter a particular market. It does not help banks decide issues involving mergers. Drucker notes that the information technology revolution so far has been a producer of data rather than a producer of information.

IT managers tend to blame "old school" executives who are unfamiliar with or afraid of this new technology. But this may not be the true cause. It is just as likely that executives have not made use of the new technology because it has not provided the information they need to make strategic decisions. They see reams of detailed data, but often find little that helps them make strategic decisions.

Internets, faxes, e-mails, and Intranet technologies provide data, but little direction. Business success is based on creating value and wealth. The degree that departments, like IT, contribute to this success depends on how well they support their organization's mission. Drucker emphasizes that information technology has had a near-zero impact on management decision-making. It has helped preserve assets and control costs and this can be important since a serious cost disadvantage can destroy a business. But the strategic value, and thus the usefulness of IT have been extremely limited. Controlling cost helps you survive, but managers understand that success will depend on carving out a successful strategy and sticking to it. Managing strategy is essential to finding innovative ways to add value, wealth, and even meaning to the lives of employees.

Executives normally do not need more data, technology, or speed. What is needed is technology that helps make sense of endless data so it can be turned into useful knowledge and work. Data needs to be refined so it can help focus efforts. Refining data can ultimately help executives make the correct choices and act in a unified way. Refining data so it becomes useful information requires tools that help organizations and/or groups keep focused on what they are really about, their mission, and where they should be going. Only when this occurs can IT be thought of as an area that adds true value, wealth, and meaning to work.

Information Overload

Using technology without specific strategies has resulted in some rather odd facts of the "electronic" age. Computer manufacturers had promised the paperless office. Instead, what companies received were shipments of office paper, which has risen 51 percent since 1983. Americans now possess 148.6 million e-mail addresses, cellular phones, pagers, fax machines, voice mailboxes and answering machines - up 365 percent from 40.7 million in 1987. Throw in 170 million standard-issue telephones on top of that and you will have a better picture of how overwhelmed we are with information. Those figures were done in 1994; meanwhile, technology continues to grow at an enormous rate. In 1998 a study released by Pitney Bowes, Inc., Stamford, Connecticut, showed that the average business-person in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom sends or receives 190 messages a day. Within this 190 communications each day, there are 30 e-mails, 22 voice messages, four pager beeps, and three express mailings along with faxes, phone calls, and letters in between all that.

This indiscriminate knowledge sharing isn't confined strictly to electronic information. Employees are regularly bombarded with innumerable documents including performance improvements, booklets, safety manuals, employee directories, corporate resource directories, and so much more. The typical Fortune 500 company will publish thousands of such documents annually.

Research shows when faced with vast amounts of information and forced to make decisions quickly, humans can be overcome by stress. Telephone surveys of business executives in the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, Hong Kong, and Singapore discovered almost half (49 percent) of the respondents feel they are quite often unable to handle the enormous volumes of information they receive. Psychologist David Lewis tells of working with CEOs and talks about many of them being tense, irritable, and overwhelmed. He says forty-nine percent of these executives say they are unable to handle the vast amounts of information. Sixty-two percent admitted their business relationships suffer. Forty-three percent of managers think that important decisions are delayed, and their ability to make decisions is affected as a result of having too much information.

Focus on Context

Information should not be plentiful or easy to share. Information sharing that makes data readily available is more of a curse than a cure. A manager's biggest decision will be rationing scarce attention. New information technologies that help filter and redirect e-mail and telephone calls can certainly help, but ultimately management decision-making is all about setting priorities. Good managers tend to want to identify and track the "essential few" things that help them make good strategic decisions. Ultimately, it comes down to the single thought, "What activities am I personally responsible for managing?" Bad managers are often simply overcome with the information. The explosion of information and accessibility of it preys on the human weaknesses of many managers, which is a belief in total accessibility and a yearning for total awareness and absolute control. Attitudes like this ensure that technology cannot be a salvation.

Information technology, to be useful to managerial decision-making, must be combined with a conceptual rethinking of both the purpose and meaning of that information. We should begin by focusing on the context of what and how the information will be used and not simply adding more and more content. Luckily, today we have both the technology and conceptual processes to help prioritize your work life and dramatically reduce the blight of information overload.

Finding better ways to integrate managerial strategies and visions within a group, department, or organization will be essential to adding value, wealth, and meaning to work. An essential part of this process of improving the usefulness of information technology is to focus on specific critical information. E-mail filters are being used to screen out less-than-critical messages. There are also technological aids to help organize your information. Technological solutions like these, though, can just exacerbate the information overload problem. They do not restrict how much information you receive; they only make it easier to focus on specific information.

Intranets can be used to control and redirect effort while reducing the information overload. They do this by focusing organizational or group personnel on their "essential few" concerns. Much of the information we receive is surplus and not relevant to what we are supposed to be about or where we are supposed to be going. Intranets can be used for tracking, analyzing, and creating new knowledge. Today, intranet technology, unlike the information filter that simply restricts information, can help you identify your critical information needed to make good decisions. Web technology and software that can measure, display, and provide continual real-time feedback to help managers stay keep focused on their essential issue would add meaning to their lives. It would also help insure that IT managers are not left feeling frustrated because, "They [managers] lack understanding of importance of how we can help".

References

Bodil, James, "Dying for Information," Management Review, Vol. 86, Issue 7, July/August 1997, p. 10.

Drucker, Peter F., "The Next Information Revolution," Forbes, Vol. 162, No. 4, August 24, 1998, p. 47.

Laabs, Jennifer, "Overload," Workforce, Vol. 78, Issue 1, January 1999, p. 30-36.

Martin, Justin, "Ultra-wired," Fortune, Vol. 138, No. 3, August 3, 1998, p. 24.

McCune, Jenny C., "Data, Data Everywhere," Management Review, Vol. 87, Issue 10, November 1998, p. 10-12.

Whiting, Rick, " Extranets Go The Extra Mile", InformationWeek, 5/20/2002,Issue 889, p72, 3p, 1c


Keith Denton is professor of management and business consultant. He has had over 150 articles and 14 books published on the subject of better management of organizations. His latest book is Empowering Intranets: To Implement Strategy, Build Teamwork and Manage Change [Greenwood Publishers, 2002]. Contact Dr. Denton by e-mail: kdenton@civid3.com .

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Copyright 2004 by Keith Denton. All rights reserved.

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