Information Management for the Intelligent Organization

Chapter 6: Managing Information Sources

"Say from whence
You owe this strange intelligence? "
(William Shakespeare 1623, The Tragedy of Macbeth, Act I Scene III)


Selections from Chapter 6

In this chapter, we take a closer look how the intelligent organization could manage
its information sources in order to scan the external environment effectively and
gain the high-quality information and feedback necessary to enable organizational
learning. One possible misconception should be dispelled right at the outset.
Environmental scanning, business intelligence, competitive intelligence, and the
other forms of information gathering we have discussed have nothing at all to do
with industrial espionage or any other variety of illegal or unethical activity. In a
world where virtually every organization, person, and artifact is an originator or
carrier of information, gathering intellligence is less a matter of procuring well-
guarded secrets, and more a matter of separating useful information from the flood
of open information that is available legally and cheaply (Steele 1993). The
combined economic and political costs of industrial espionage or other clandestine
information pilfering cannot be justified when compared with the benefits of
gathering intelligence from open sources. Whereas industrial espionage may
provide some measure of short-term advantage, establishing a program of
systematic scanning for open intelligence endows the organization with a strategic,
long-term capability to learn and innovate continuously. The tremendous
proliferation of open sources of information about nations, organizations,
personalities, products, technologies, substances, and so on, is the result of several
factors, including statutory requirements, consumer demand, and the spread of
information technology. Meyer describes the consequences of living in an age of
information glut:

We are living in an era of unprecedented access to information.
Today's global telecommunications networks move raw information
around the world literally at the speed of light. And as the capacity to
move information expands, the volume of available information
keeps growing to fill this expanding capacity. ... In short, raw
information from around the world is fairly pouring into government
and corporate headquarters, rather like water pouring into the holds of
a sinking ship. ... Today's senior government and business executives
are choking on raw information. To their astonishment and growing
distress, they are discovering that the only thing as difficult and
dangerous as managing a large enterprise with too little information is
managing one with too much information. (Meyer 1987, p.28-29)

Riding this information tsunami presents a new organizational challenge.
Information gathering can no longer be a one-time activity of selecting a handful of
publications to subscribe to or designing call report forms for employees to use.
Instead, information collection becomes an organizational function that requires
continuous planning, coordination, innovation, evaluation, and fine tuning.
Planning is required to relate information collection to the strategic and tactical
goals of the organization. Planning identifies who the information users are and
understand how they will be using the information, and matches information
needs with the sometimes hidden information resources and specialized expertise
that already exist within the organization. The range and variety of sources provides
great scope for innovation in the gathering, correlation, and confirmation of
information. Creative information acquisition can accelerate understanding -
disparate pieces of information may be more swiftly assembled into a coherent view
of the external environment, and this in itself is a source of competitive advantage.
The ultimate proof of the information pudding is in its consumption by decision
makers. From time to time, key users' evaluations of the information and
information sources supporting their data needs must be sought and systematically
analyzed. Such evaluations not only show up the weak sources that should be
weeded out, but also give insight into users' true information needs. Over time,
information needs and organizational goals change, and the information collection
plan must be adjusted and revised to ensure a good fit. We discuss these and other
related issues in the following sections.

Managing an Information Ecology for Scanning the Environment
As the organization's sensing system, environmental scanning should deploy an
array of information sensors with different ranges and resolutions. At one end of
the spectrum, organizational radars should sweep the horizon widely, and sound
early warning of important trends and forces of change which could be so significant
that the organization needs to start preparing its response right away. On the other
hand, probes and detectors provide a microscopic view, giving detailed information
about specific organizations, products, or activities that could impact short-term
performance or viability. Both kinds of information are necessary - individual
signals have to be interpreted against an information background provided through
continuous scanning; and new information has to be compared with historical data
to detect change or deviation. The planning of information gathering therefore
begins with designing a balanced portfolio of information sources that adequately
balance each other's strengths and weaknesses.

To structure our discussion, we divide sources used in scanning into three broad
categories: human sources, textual sources, and electronic sources (Table 6.1).
Human sources may be internal (eg. employees, staff) or external (eg. customers,
suppliers) to the organization. Textual sources supply information that may be in
published, written, or broadcast form. They may be subdivided into published
sources (eg. newspapers, periodicals, radio, television), and internal documents (eg.
memos, reports). Finally, electronic sources supply information via computers and
telecommunication networks, and may be subdivided into online databases/CD-
ROMs, and information resources on the Internet.

Table 6.1 Categories of Information Sources

In practice, the various sources feed on and off one other, forming several
intertwining "information food chains," so that information is typically transferred
through many intermediate consumers before arriving at the end user. For
example, the user who receives news from a colleague may be at the end of a long
information-chain in which the colleague may have obtained the news by reading
an internal memorandum that reported information from a customer who had
come across the information when viewing a competitor's product display.
Information chains may involve many or few intermediate levels; in some cases, a
user may have obtained the information directly by speaking to the person
concerned or reading the original document. Figure 6.1 illustrates the idea of
overlapping information chains. In an information ecology, information sources do
not exist in isolation, they feed off each other, taking in and processing information
before re-transmitting it, sometimes adding value and sometimes introducing
distortion. Humans tend to be secondary or tertiary information consumers who are
high up in the information chain, and this is one reason why most people,
including managers, regard human sources as the most important. Sources high up
on the information chain may summarize, explain, or interpret data, and so assist
users to understand ambiguous situations. Sources low on the chain (or close to the
event) may provide immediacy, a richness of detail, or allow users to form their
own assessments. In appraising the many studies that have stressed users'
preference for personal sources, one should not underestimate the probability that
some form of print, observational or other information may have been the primary
source in the first place. In scanning, extensive information networks which include
both short and long information chains are necessary to ensure a sufficiently broad
and thorough sweep of the external environment, so that important signals are not
missed but are correctly read.

Fig. 6.1 An Ecology of Information Sources

Selection and Use of Information Sources

...

Perceived Source Characteristics

...

Information traits

...

Human Sources

...

Textual Sources

...

...

Go to Book Home Page.