Putting the Organization in Info Management

Cheeky screenshot of text exchange with a big, uncaring bank
You know this is a dramatization of the event because Big Bank doesn't answer texts after 5pm

Information management can be described using a couple of different but fairly similar models. The University of Washington’s iSchool depicts a triangle-shaped model of Information, People, and Technology. However, our readers might notice this blog examines the intersection of People, Information, Technology and Organizations (this model is explained in greater detail by Ping Zhang and Robert I. Benjamin in a paper titled “Understanding information related fields: a conceptual framework”).

We’re square rather than triangular, if you will.

Why do we add organizations? Because gathering and acting on information changes fundamentally in an organizational context. And sometimes, information behavior within an organization can be downright bizarre or frustrating.

Here’s an example: I went out to dinner a few weeks ago with friends, and my debit card was declined (happily, the waiter did his best to not treat me like a deadbeat). Since the card was declined for no obvious reason, I had a mystery on my hands. Unfortunately, customer service representatives (CSRs) at the national bank where I have my checking account were stumped as well.

Eventually, two weeks later – after three calls to the 1-800 customer service line, two trips to the local branch, and a dozen fact-finding missions through the online banking portal – my debit card was still not operational and I had been told it might be because the number had been stolen.

Think about all the failures in my interaction with the bank: I had several types of contact with different outlets of the organization, and none of them were satisfactory.  At least three CSRs were unable to access my account because I had opened my account in a different state (each of the representatives did sheepishly suggest I could open another account at the branch and then they could help me; I declined those offers).

I can do without naming the bank because this isn’t meant to be a Consumerist-type rant. But I think the episode does bring to light the irrational and haphazard information strategies organizations seem to employ. As a person and a consumer, I scratch my head when representatives of the bank cannot answer my questions or help me understand what is happening with my account access. But the madness of the situation also affects the bank employees: imagine the exasperation of working a front-line CSR job and having one’s hands tied routinely in a significant number of common issues.

But for the organization, this information strategy is working on some level. I imagine – the finance industry being particularly yoked by multiple layers of regulation – this national bank has designed its policies and procedures to serve up a savory dish of compliant operational spaghetti. Somewhere, a satisfied auditor completes an X on a checklist when a CSR in Washington cannot access my account, what with its Massachusetts provenance.

This is operational reality in the modern banking industry, and I mostly understand why my encounter with the bank was so dissatisfactory. However, I think such encounters are at the very least opportunities for learning in organizations. Holistic customer experience (a process of design that includes all touch points in dealing with customers, or even vendors, of organizations) should focus on tasks vital to customers at all service delivery points.

Here at infoscussion, we believe information management model has four facets – and that an organization’s needs can be separate from, but equal to, those of the people involved with the organization.

Business vs IT

                After reading the last few posts by nickmalone and Jordan I started to think back about the companies that I have either observed or been employed by and I realized one thing.  There’s a large disconnect between the technical people and the business people.  Now I realize that some of you already know this but hear me out.  I think this causes more problems than many realize.  NickMalone’s post is a great example of what can happen when that gap isn’t addressed, and Jordan’s advice of value added statements is a great way to start fixing the problem.

                As many of you know, I have my Bachelors in Information Systems, which is more of a pure Information Technology degree as it had very few business classes.  I was very happy just learning about how to program and network computers.  The more I learned about networking specifically the more I thought I knew about succeeding in the business environment.  The last quarter of my Bachelor’s degree I took an Advanced Oracle Database class.  That class introduced me to a whole new thought process behind IT, that of IT is there to solve business problems.  Before that I hadn’t really but how IT related to business.  Now some of you may be saying, of course IT is there to solve business problems, what else would it be doing.  But I want you to think about any current or past IT project that you may be on.  What was the purpose?  There are always cut answers of improving user experience or improving the way the business functions but what really was the main goal behind the project.  What was it going to do to help that particular company succeed? 

                That is what I believe is the main point/goal  behind Nick and Jordan’s last posts and what I believe is the fundamental problem in IT departments.  To many IT professionals can make computers do amazing things but they have forgotten that IT is there to help businesses succeed, not the other way around.  I am sure there are cases where it is different but even for companies that specialize in IT consulting or Software design, every IT system should have a purpose and should be directly correlated to a business function.  Once that business goal or function is made aware and focused on I believe that IT projects will be smoother and stop having the Business needs vs. Personal needs issues that NickMalone talked about.

                Now I don’t mean to sound like this is all a problem with bottom-level IT people.  When was the last time you heard about an Executive of a company want to implement some new technology that they read or heard about?  Maybe they heard about want to implement a type of Social Network on their intranet and tell their direct reports to start making a business case for it.  Here again is another face of the same problem.  You shouldn’t make business cases for technology.  You should make “Technology Cases” for business problems.  It might be a slight adjustment but think about how many times technology gets implemented without proper planning so it fails.  If executives, managers and underlings alike were to start the planning and implementation phases of every project linking everything back to specific business problems, businesses would spend less and be more productive overall.

                Now I realize that I don’t have the years of experience of others who are reading this blog so I ask for your thoughts.  When was the last time you started a project that failed?  Did you know the main purpose behind the project?  Was that purpose if you did know it?  Have you seen a difference between projects that directly relate back to business goals and ones that are unclear of business goals?  Now this doesn’t address fully the change management side of things but I but I believe that if employees truly understood how these specific technology implementations helped not only them but the business as a whole you would have less push back, and believe me, being in Security, I know about users pushing back on new technology implementations, but that is a whole different post.

Schooling customers in sustainable consumption

Schooling by Benson Kua

new development in the way Whole Foods displays its seafood has me thinking about how consumers use information in their decisions. The supermarket chain recently started labeling the seafood in its fresh cases with a color-coded system to indicate the sustainability of fishing practices for each type of fish offered. (For example, fish in danger of being over-harvested, or caught using ecologically damaging practices, are labeled Red or “Avoid.”)

Initially, I thought this was an odd move: why carry “Avoid” fish at all? But if I consider the Whole Foods tactic as an information strategy, there seem to be some advantages to giving consumers more data related to their purchases, rather than simply adjusting prices or changing the variety of products offered. I have tried to identify and outline the important components of the Whole Foods information strategy in my analysis below.

Consumers act in a social setting in a supermarket. A consumer may be less likely to order an “Avoid” species in front of other customers, even if she does not personally worry about collapsing fisheries. The social pressure to responsibly consume could impact on the overall demand for certain species.

Perhaps more importantly, consumers gain lasting information from a single transaction. The next time a consumer purchases fish – even if it is not at Whole Foods – he may likely remember certain species labeled “Avoid.” In this way, the labeling tactic could inspire a shift in demand throughout the marketplace, or at the very least cause consumers to ask more questions about the origin of their seafood.

Prices are point-in-time data, and may inaccurately reflect the sustainability of consumption. We suspect many fisheries may be close to collapse, and the negative impact of fishing practices worldwide will affect all points of the food chain. We are not able to price a salmon fillet to capture the opportunity cost of fisheries collapse (the 1992 collapse of the Northern Cod fishery demonstrates some of the complexities of gauging the health of a fishery). Consumers need more information than price alone to make sustainable choices.

Whole Foods sends a powerful message about its perceived role as a corporate citizen. Corporations are supposed to care about the profits in this period or this year. However, sustainable practices require a longer view than quarterly (or even annual) earnings statements can offer. By giving consumers more information, Whole Foods takes the long view on the seafood market, the importance of ocean ecology, and its place as a food retailer, while continuing to give consumers optimum choice.

We are surrounded by information constantly. Curiously, though, the information available to us as consumers in the grocery store is truncated by federal regulations, and in some cases, state laws. The seafood labeling practice at Whole Foods demonstrates the possibilities of giving consumers clear, salient information to encourage sustainable and healthy choices in the supermarket.

(You don’t have to go to Whole Foods Market to refer to the Seafood Watch guidelines. Downloadable guides are available through the Monterey Bay Aquarium.)

Photo by bensonkua. Available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial license.