Everyone Is in the Information Business

Every organization is in the information business; most work centers around organizing , governing, and distributing information.

Sometimes the information itself is the end product: content, whether streaming videos or articles on a website, needs to be organized so that people can find what they’re looking for. The same applies to products: digital environments have to store and display a ton of information about things you can purchase online (basically: anything). Because, in short, you can’t buy what you can’t find.

Internally, as well, organizations have lots of information to govern and distribute: sales materials, marketing content, and internal-facing websites and intranets with information for employees—not to mention the massive volumes of documents generated by daily operations and other projects. And the more information you have (depending on the type) the greater your potential risk of liability for security, privacy, and compliance.

Many businesses, otherwise excellent at what they do, struggle to realize that information management is a core business competency that requires the full support of the organization, like any valuable organizational asset. This includes executive support and strategy, staffing, technology, governance and maintenance, and organizational alignment. 

Leading and Trailing Indicators of Information Problems

Bad information-seeking experiences are, as Factor’s Gary Carlson has written previously, a trailing indicator of deeper information and organizational problems.

The concepts of leading and trailing indicators are borrowed from economics, and applied widely in business. Some trends and metrics, called leading indicators, are predictive of what’s going to happen in the near future. They can be applied to any number of scenarios: a global airborne pandemic might mean that you want to stock up on (or ramp up production of) face masks, for example.

Trailing, or lagging, indicators are measures of the effects of past choices: they show the results of previous efforts. Using COVID again as an example, by the time hospitalizations are rising, and there is time to measure and report this data, a new wave of cases is already here.

Visualization of some leading (on right) and lagging (on left) indicators of COVID infections on a continuum illustraded with a two-sided arrow.
COVID-19 Leading and Lagging Indicators
Source: https://www.hawaiidata.org/news/2020/8/4/importance-of-leading-lagging-indicators-monitoring-hawaii-covid19

Conventional wisdom holds that leading indicators change rapidly and are difficult to quantify (there is little data available), whereas trailing indicators are relatively easy to measure (there is data) but hard to change.

The Issue Is Rarely the Issue

Information problems, exemplified by, but not limited to, information-seeking problems like search, seem therefore like classic trailing indicators. There is much supporting data available (e.g., website sales or traffic is down; employees can’t find anything on the intranet) but improving search is fundamentally difficult.

This is complicated by the fact that, at many organizations, information problems are viewed as IT problems. (“Search is broken!”)

Buying a new CMS or search application, or throwing money at unexplainable AI-based solutions (“ChatGPT will solve everything!”), does little to address the core problem: it takes dedication and resources to build and maintain an information layer built on solid foundations.

That’s why we like to say: the issue is rarely the issue.

It takes work to improve information-seeking experiences, but it can be done; it starts with a solid foundation and a commitment to being in the information business.