Transforming Information into Knowledge, Part I

Business changes faster than technology can support. That is just a fact of a CIO’s life. But there are ways to improve organizational agility and better support the demands of an ever-changing enterprise. This three part series will discuss various strategies for better meeting business needs.

In this Articles, I focus on how to create a context for amplifying the business value of information. My straight-forward proposition is that organizations that focus on core practices for effective access to and integration of information get more value from IT investments.

The resistance to addressing information access and integration head-on is that it seems like a “boiling the ocean” problem. It doesn’t need to be. It is possible to focus on a business critical solution, but throughout the effort maintain an enterprise perspective designed to build information value incrementally.

Here’s the recipe.

  1. Focus on a specific process as a starting point.
  2. Create common business language across the enterprise.
  3. Embed that language in tools, systems and processes to create new business capabilities and agility.
  4. Create governance and change management programs to leverage these capabilities in day to day work processes.
  5. Apply accepted practices to unstructured content processes to promote better information hygiene.
  6. Measure the information management process.
  7. Measure business impact of new practices, and
  8. Repeat on department by department basis.

What follows is an elaboration of each of these steps:

1. Focus on a specific process as a starting point - Choose a few processes that will provide significant benefits to the organization, but look at those processes in the broader context of overall enterprise organizing principles.

CIOs are frequently tasked with getting ahead of content sprawl and chaos. The problem can become widespread and overwhelming and it becomes difficult to know where to start.

The first consideration is to identify what processes need attention and where the right information can provide maximum impact. Though this seems like an obvious point, too often people will look across the enterprise and try to solve information management problems on an enterprise scale; making them seem intractable.

The other extreme, taking too narrow a focus, will simply lead to more siloed content and fragmented repositories. The difference is in the scope of analysis. It’s important to start with specific problems to solve for specific audiences but also to zoom out, creating common structures across the enterprise.

2. Create common business language across the enterprise - These efforts go by different names: Enterprise Architecture, Taxonomy, Information Models, Data Architecture, Information Architecture, Metadata Strategy, Master Data Management, Enterprise Vocabularies and Glossaries.

The key is to combine the business perspective with the technical perspective and to enroll the correct stakeholders in the process.

Here are some common mistakes:

  • Considering this a pure technical exercise: The common wisdom is if it is data related or metadata, then it's in the IT realm. In fact, IT can own some metadata but the business users need to own business language. The language that is used to describe solutions, markets, offerings, risks, products, features, etc is business in context, perspective and usage.

3. Embed that language in tools, systems and processes to create new business capabilities and agility - If we look at the challenge of having common language for concepts, business terms, and information objects, there are a tremendous number of opportunities for creating consistency throughout the information landscape of the organization.

This is done by ensuring that tools for accessing information evolve towards a common framework, managed through taxonomy and metadata disciplines. Representative tools include business analysis and reporting tools, search, enterprise and Web content management, portals, data warehouse, master data management, and collaborative suites among others. (I'll cover more this topic in Part II of this series.)

  • Handing it off to library science people or information architects: Each of these roles has a valid but incomplete perspective. Avoid complete handoffs in favor of a joint exercise of business and technical groups with executive involvement and sponsorship.
  • Taking too narrow or too broad a perspective: There needs to be a fine balance between focusing on a process or application and understanding the wider context. Many organizations have wasted time and frustrated participants by trying to boil the ocean. At the same time, if the focus is too narrow, there will be yet another silo of information.
  • Not considering long term governance, maintenance and change management: These projects have a fixed duration for a specific outcome, but are never completely finished. When asked when the enterprise taxonomy will be finished, I answer, "When you are finished with sales, marketing, and manufacturing -- when the business ceases operations." Since everything changes in a growing evolving organization, business language will evolve over time to stay current and fresh.
  • Doing it without the correct resources or approach: This area has undergone tremendous change in approach, practices and maturity over the past 10 years.

4. Create governance and change management programs to leverage these capabilities in day to day work processes - Governance allows for ongoing evolution of terminology and core vocabularies. Governance processes provide the leadership, resources, direction, operational guidelines, and ongoing monitoring of progress and success of the information management initiative.

The goal of good governance is to ensure that the correct capabilities are being developed and deployed, that sufficient resources for success are allocated, that policies are being complied with and that organizational change management resources are engaged throughout the program.

These efforts require that the goals of the program are fully socialized, and that users understand the end game and benefits as well as what is expected of them. Programs succeed or fail based on the level of socialization, buy-in and change management effectiveness.

5. Apply accepted practices to unstructured content processes to promote better information hygiene - Most enterprises have developed poor information management habits and practices. This is understandable as the information tsunami is growing at an astounding rate. IBM believes that in the next five years enterprise information will grow by 650% with 80% being unstructured.

The only way to avoid the increasing inefficiency and ineffectiveness that this situation will create is to begin to develop better information hygiene. This means a) developing and applying information lifecycles, b) using the appropriate tools for collaboration versus reference, c) applying appropriate resources to organizing important information, and d) assigning ownership and curation across repositories.

6. Measure the information management process - Develop metrics to measure the quality and currency of content. A big part of this is simply measuring success at getting rid of materials that are cluttering up the system. This can significantly improve search results, make content more usable, allow essential content to be prioritized, and ensure that the curation process is focused on useful information.

Other useful metrics include how often critical content has been reviewed, whether tagging has been approved, the age of content, value ratings by users, heuristics for alignment with best practices, search precision and recall and, most importantly, statistical sampling of content for compliance with governance process guidelines.

7. Measure business impact of new practices - The business impact of content can only be measured through its impact on a business process.

Content supports process (knowledge base content supports customer service reps, for example) and the performance of that function can be linked to use of high value content: Sales processes are supported by proposal content, competitive information, marketing content, etc.; engineering is supported by various design libraries, methodologies, test protocols, and specification documents, for example.

Content quality can impact a process which in turn supports a business objective (customer retention, customer acquisition, time to market, etc.)

By creating a linkage to a specific step in a process and measuring how effective or efficient that step is with supporting content versus the effectiveness with poor quality content, one can measure impact of these new practices.

8. Repeat on department by department basis - Once this approach is initially developed and applied, create a center of excellence with the purpose of introducing these practices to other parts of the organization.

Content habits take time to develop. In fact, a baseline maturity assessment can tell you where the organization is on the learning curve and how long it will take to move through the stages that are needed to achieve excellence.

While this journey will be challenging, there really is no choice given the information avalanche that lies ahead.


This Articles was published on CIOUPDATE.COM on August 3, 2011.  Read Part 2 of the series.

Meet the Author
Seth Earley

Seth Earley is the Founder & CEO of Earley Information Science and the author of the award winning book The AI-Powered Enterprise: Harness the Power of Ontologies to Make Your Business Smarter, Faster, and More Profitable. An expert with 20+ years experience in Knowledge Strategy, Data and Information Architecture, Search-based Applications and Information Findability solutions. He has worked with a diverse roster of Fortune 1000 companies helping them to achieve higher levels of operating performance.