Information is our Business, an SLA Europe talk: 18th November, 2014

Information is our business: why businesses need information managers, a talk by Katharine Schopflin on behalf of SLA Europe: 18th November 2014

Attending SLLG members report on this free ticketed, interesting talk.

SLA Europe presented Katharine Schopflin at the Main Library of the University of Edinburgh to give a talk on the necessity of information managers in business.

Katharine suggested the flow data-to-wisdom diagram (DATA –> Information –> Knowledge –> Wisdom) is now outmoded. In modern organisations, each element does not necessarily follow the other, nor is one always set in the hierarchy. In modern corporate thinking, it is best to concentrate on company wide “Good Information” across all levels.

Katharine defined “Good Information” as:

  • Appropriate to the business needs
  • Findable
  • Authoritative
  • Secure

Good information is a business asset. Good information provides data and statistics with a dynamic business role. Good information can reveal productivity, can suggest trends and be used to inform the business and staff. Good information is a route toward clear channels of communication. Good Information improves business.

Katharine explained the office secretary, document registry and the business library are diminishing modern business practices. Increasingly these roles – which were involved in the storage, filing and access of information – are taken over by individual responsibility of all staff.

Technology is the main driving force of this evolution. Paper documents filed in binders or cards maintained in cabinets have been supplemented and more often than not superseded by electronic storage. Email inboxes, folders on computer hard drives and company intranet systems are where business information now mainly resides.

The result is often a business where the information held is inconsistently filed. A single document can be held equally as an email, a printed page and a link to a file on an intranet. Often a single document exists in 2 or 3 mediums at once. Issues of which is the authoritative version, the most findable version and the version most comfortably referred to all lead into the beginning of seeing why an information professional is required in business.

There are a number of obstacles known across sectors which restrict the level of good information. Individual staff responsibility:

  • Often little interest in documents and records as “information”
  • Adding Metadata to work is a chore to be avoided
  • Inconsistent filing system
  • Documents and records in personal email package or independent hard drives
  • Good information not shared

Company wide responsibility:

  • Departments often don’t look beyond their own information needs
  • Filing systems are inconsistent from department to department
  • IT departments are given full ownership of information storage

Added to these is the difference between structured and unstructured information held.

Structured information is something many companies collect. It is data added to specified fields. It is information specifically to be understood for a limited number of purposes. However, the more structured information becomes the more rigid it is. This can be problematic when a company would like to use the information away from its initial intended use.

Unstructured information is something many companies also collect. Unstructured information is records of meetings, policy documents and correspondence. It is data which can be mined for various information purposes indefinitely. However, there is a danger of unstructured information being less accessible. Further, unstructured information can become a basic means to show off how hard working a department is and therefore not being kept for good information, but for the simple volume of it.

Overall, ethical and legal issues must be taken into account. Copyright, data protection and freedom of information in particular must be considered with all information collected.

The final obstacle Katharine explained was one of legacy. With paper, a document can be stored relatively indefinitely. With an electronic platform, the document requires regular checking every few years to ensure it is still useable. Systems and storage devices will all be updated eventually. Software upgrades and data migrations inevitably result in some data loss. Even if it is in formatting, data can be altered and its value reduced.

Katharine was mindful to include human nature’s own reluctance to change as a potential factor with moving to new information storage processes (“it was always done this way”). In fact human nature can be the ultimate obstacle. Passwords leaving with ex-staff, employees creating folders named “Ignore” and managers keeping every email ever sent and received are all too common in companies and leads into basic bad information management. These human habits can be difficult to break but can be worked through to a positive change for improved information management.

Katharine provided some key solutions which an information manager can bring to maintaining and increasing the value of a business’s information.

  • Talk to all staff levels
    • Find out what information they create
    • Find out what information they require
  • Make friends with IT
    • IT should meet the needs of the staff, not only the IT dept.
    • Don’t let IT “own” a project, even if it comes from their budget
  • Asses the information solutions
    • Is their a quick fix? A weekly e-mail to solve communication?
    • Is it achievable?
    • What are the risks? Risk can be used to scare people to better habits
    • How quickly can it be introduced?
    • Does it require new expertise?
    • Is it easy for staff to comply?
  • Add consistency
    • Explain the value of how information is stored, found and accessed
    • Ensure all departments and staff follow the system
    • Re-assure staff of the worth of adding meta data or filing in a certain way

Katharine gave a word of warning for the information manager. Don’t allow yourself to be thought of as the ‘Magic Bullet’. You are not going to solve all communication and information troubles at once. Instead move towards a better system using your expert techniques, taking people along with you. Often this does not involve throwing money and new technology at the problems. By not making change for change sake you will be more accepted in your role.

Finally, Katharine ended on a positive note. Always remember people want their information managed well and most people will happily go along with procedures when they see the worth in them.

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As you can see, the talk was interesting and Katharine was a knowledgeable speaker. It is no surprise, considering her biography of 18 years experience in the field and a recent PhD in information science. Katharine was a clear and passionate activist for information professionals taking a more immersive role in organisations.

Katharine spoke with good sense and a humour on a level which was engaging and relatable. The talk was enhanced with slides which added more points and notes to take home. Katharine dealt with all questions from the body of the hall thoroughly and empathised with the issues being described. After the formal talk, Katharine was happy to discuss things further (and in other directions) with attendees who stayed for the informal networking period which was admirably supplied with refreshments by SLA Europe. It was a very informative, pleasant and approachable evening spent with Katharine.

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