Information Management for the Intelligent Organization

Chapter 3: Managers As Information Users

". . . an enlightened ruler does not worry about people not knowing him, he worries about not knowing people. He worries not about outsiders not knowing insiders, but about insiders not knowing outsiders. He worries not about subordinates not knowing superiors, but about superiors not knowing subordinates. He worries not about the lower classes not knowing the upper classes, but about the upper classes not knowing the lower classes."

(Zhuge Liang, ca. 200 AD, The Way of the General)


Selections from Chapter 3

Everyone in an intelligent organization participates in learning and contributes to knowledge creation. Front line employees and lower-level supervisors and managers develop tacit knowledge and specialized know-how. Their knowledge is closely bound up with the intuitions and heuristics that they bring to their tasks. Their knowledge is all the more valuable because it is often impossible to verbalize and hard to transfer. They work at the boundary between the organization and the outside world, and it is through their actions that the organization ultimately attains its purpose. Top management on the other hand combine their knowledge about the competencies of the organization and the exigencies of the environment to envision goals and directions. As leaders of the organization, they are well connected with many outside information sources. Good senior managers are skilled at winnowing the wheat from the chaff of noisy information. Their knowledge is for the refinement of mental models and the unification of organizational purpose. Between top management and the operatives are the line and staff managers who occupy intermediate levels of the organization. Their knowledge bridges the requirements of the broad, long-term visions of top management and the detailed, tacit knowledge of the front line workers. Their knowledge fills the divide between strategic intent and operational reality. In this chapter, we look at managers at all levels of the organization - chief executives, marketing managers, finance managers, public sector officials, and so on. A better understanding of their information dispositions can aid the design of information management processes that quicken their learning and knowledge building.

What do managers do? This seemingly innocent question has proved to be surprisingly difficult to answer well. For a long time, students of management have sought to piece together the mosaic of variegated activities that make up a manager's work day. After a comparison of eight major studies completed over the past thirty years, Hales (1993) observed both commonalities and variations in the content and execution of managerial work. In terms of content, managers engage in specialized technical work as well as general administrative work. Managerial work is ill-defined, so much so that part of it is concerned with negotiating its own boundaries. Within these flexible boundaries, common work elements include the following. Managers act as figureheads or leaders who represent their work units. They monitor and disseminate information flowing into and out of the units. They negotiate with subordinates, superiors, other managers, other work units, and outsiders. They handle disturbances, solve problems, and deal with disruptions. They allocate resources in the form of money, materials and personnel. They direct and control the work of subordinates. They form contacts and liaise with others. They innovate by seeking new objectives and new methods of operation. They plan what is to be done and when. In terms of how managers go about doing their work, research has revealed consistent patterns in the ways managers divide their time. Generally, managers spend most of their time reacting to day-to-day problems, and much less time on planning or thinking about strategies. They use face-to-face meetings or telephone calls to deal with operational problems. Most of these activities are short and subject to frequent interruptions. Managers commute swiftly from one problem to the next, splintering the work day into little packets of concentrated activity. Hales (1993) describes the frenetic character of managerial work as being fragmented, reactive, ad hoc, eclectic, and highly interactive. Whatever thinking that takes place happens as decisions and plans that are developed while the managers are still engaged in other activities. Although it may appear to be inefficient or superficial, this form of managerial work is one way of coping with ambiguous, unstructured problem situations for which solutions have to be found promptly and have to be acceptable to different groups of stakeholders.

Management as Conversations

A hermeneutic interpretation of "what managers do" is offered by Winograd and Flores (1987). In their view, the essence of managerial work is in the conversations that managers engage in. The role of these conversations is to create, take care of, and initiate commitments in an organization. Management after all is to do with getting things done, especially through cooperative action, and getting things done require the performance of linguistic acts that include requests for action and commitment, promises to fulfill commitments, reports on the conditions of commitments, reports on external circumstances, declarations of new policies, and so on. As the organization as a whole fulfills its external commitments, its members are participating in networks of conversations. Most managerial activities are therefore concerned with the fulfilment of commitments by activating networks of recurrent conversations. The networks are recurrent because their general structures remain the same while the detailed content of individual conversations may vary. For Winograd and Flores, these networks of recurrent conversations are the core of the organization. Managerial conversations also generate the contexts in which effective action can be realized. To do this, managers participate in `conversations for possibilities' that explore new contexts for the conversations for action. They ask questions like "What is it possible to do?" and "What will be the domain of actions in which we will engage?" (Winograd and Flores 1987, 151) Conversations for possibilities require reinterpretations of past activities that include not only past requests, promises and deeds, but also the complete situations in which these acts take place.

Eccles and Nohria (1992) expand on the role of language in managerial activity. Managers work in a rhetorical universe in which language is used to communicate, to persuade, and to create. Almost every situation or artifact that a manager is involved with has a rhetorical element: committee meetings, group discussions, project plans, written memos, progress reports, newspaper articles, and vision statements, these are but some examples. In all these situations, managers use language and rhetoric to prod action; to coax, inspire, demand or otherwise persuade individuals to apply their best efforts. The rhetorical nature of management discourse and practice arises because "the way people talk about the world has everything to do with the way the world is ultimately understood and acted in, and that the concept of revolutionary change depends to a great extent on how the world is framed by our language." (Eccles and Nohria 1992, p. 29) Without the right words used in the right ways, it is unlikely that the right actions will occur. Without words there are no ways of expressing strategies, structures or systems. Action and rhetoric are tightly coupled together at the center of managerial work.

Managers as Information Users

We may now summarize the main contingencies that characterise the information use milieu of managers. First, most managerial work is action-oriented. When managers make a decision, they are in fact making a commitment to action. When managers make sense of a situation, they are in fact interpreting a context for negotiating the possibilities for action. The handling of disturbances, breakdowns or conflicts all involve the taking of actions which allow the work in an organization to continue to move along. The need to act prevails even when the information available is known to be incomplete or ambiguous. Second, both the internal and external environments of the manager's work unit are complex and dynamic. Internally, organizational action is played out in an intricate web of personalities, interests, and long-held beliefs. Each issue may be structurally familiar, but is particularized with layers of emotion and history. Externally, the organization joins an environment in which competitors, customers, suppliers, shareholders, regulators and others all manoeuvre for advantage or control. The trajectories of cause and effect are hidden in a crisscross of relationships and dependencies that are never fully revealed. In short, managers grapple with messy problems in fuzzy settings. Third, the need to take prompt action in a rapid stream of ill-defined situations challenges the cognitive capacity of the individual manager. The manager copes by making simplifications and applying heuristics. She does not try to develop a complete representation of the problem situation she faces, but works with a simplified model that captures the most salient features. She searches for solutions using procedures and rules of thumb that have worked for her before. Her search objective is to find a course of action that will work well enough to solve the problem at hand - she satisfices rather than optimizes (Simon 1976).

The special contingencies of their information use environments modulate the information behaviors and preferences of managers. Managers' orientation towards action suggests that they prefer concrete information to abstract information. Concrete information about specific individuals, organizations or relationships, provides the manager with the details and nuances that she needs to evaluate the relevance and applicability of the information. Because they deal with messy problems where particulars can make a crucial difference, managers look for information in the form of cases and examples that are sufficiently fine-grained for them to develop a personal feel for the situation. Because they face ambiguous situations where facts and preferences are obscured, managers look for sources and use modes of communication that allow them to probe the hidden dimensions of a situation. For these reasons managers' most important information sources are the other people in the organization, and they tend to interact with these sources in face-to-face communications. The complexity of the work environment and the need to respond quickly often mean that managers cannot afford a thorough or systematic search of the available information. Information search starts with the recognition that a problem exists, and ends when good enough alternatives have been found. Search is also heuristic and local: familiar and habitual information sources are used first, and solutions are often sought in the neighbourhood of the problems. Ultimately, managers use information to choreograph effective action. Action is effective when it is robust, that is, when it is able to accomplish short-term objectives while preserving long-term flexibility (Eccles and Nohria 1992). Since external circumstances change even as the planned actions unfold, present actions should not restrict a manager's options to adapt to new situations as they evolve.

Implications for Information Management

Our process model of information management consists of six sets of activities: identifying information needs; information acquisition; information organization and storage; developing information products and services; information distribution; and information use. Our portrayal of managers as information users suggests implications for each set of activities. In terms of needs, managers require information that is sharply focused and finely detailed. They are interested in learning about the informal, unspoken codes that can help decipher a fuzzy problem situation. They prefer to receive their information face-to-face so that they can ask questions and get feedback. Despite these demanding needs, when it comes to information gathering, managers seem to rely heavily on a relatively small number of accessible, familiar, personal sources. Managers exchange information frequently and consult with each other through meetings and telephone calls. More recent research indicates that managers do read or scan printed information sources, and are likely to share interesting news from these sources with others. Managers rarely maintain or use a system to organize and store their information, and instead depend on their own memory or personal lists of data. As a result, managers are sometimes unaware that others in the organization are also working on the same or related problems, or that the same kind of problem has been encountered before. In using information, managers tend to satisfice by choosing alternatives that appear to deliver good enough (but not necessarily the best) results.

In designing information products and services for managers, the starting premise should be to recognize and address the action-orientation and problem-solving contingencies of the managers' information use environment. Information provided needs to be salient, and should be responsive to the special conditions that define the potential usefulness of information. Where possible information should include actual examples and cases described in some detail in order for managers to develop their own spin of the situation. Information has to be timely, and should be presented in a format that facilitates rapid browsing and uptake. Information delivery should integrate well with the managers' work habits, requiring little additional effort to access the information and to share it with others. Where necessary information may have to be presented personally in face-to-face briefings. Managers' information seeking may be limited by their time-saving biases and heuristics: they search for information in familiar places, use information in satisficing modes, and rely on personal memory to organize and store information. Information services may be used to extend the reach of managers' data gathering in various ways. A broader, more complete, and more accurate search of information sources that the manager would not have the time to explore could local additional alternatives or helpful background. Other organizations' experiences could be benchmarked to suggest new criteria by which alternatives may be evaluated. Pointing to past solutions of similar problems or related work in other parts of the organizaiton may save managers from reinventing the wheel. Effectual information services for executives depends upon a comprehension of managers' information needs and use environments. Towards this goal we review past research on managers as information users in the next section.

Research on Managers as Information Users

We present below a representative selection of the research from the management and information science literatures that examine the information behavior of managers. Because we are interested in how managers gather and use information, we have chosen studies that touch on both these aspects. Past research seems to cluster around a few dominant sets of variables (Figure 3.1). Information seeking and use are driven by information needs and they in turn create new information needs, so these three elements (information needs, seeking, use) together compose the information behavior of managers. Information behavior as a whole is seen to be influenced by the problem situation, managers' organizational roles, and their personal traits. Problem situation refers to those dimensions of the internal and external environment such as organizational norms and external uncertainty that determine the use and usefulness of information (MacMullin and Taylor 1984). Organizational roles are ways of grouping related managerial activities into larger categories or functional roles. For example, research has suggested that it is instructive to differentiate between the informational roles and decisional roles of managers (Mintzberg 1973). Finally, managerial traits refer to such personal characteristics as the functional specialization of the manager or his cognitive style.

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The Politics of Information Sharing

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Managerial Information Processing and Organizational Learning

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