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Wednesday, 20 June 2012

The concept of Information Salience. Or to put it another way: answering the thorny question of "why are we bothering?"

I am currently working with a major government agency (let's call them "Agency X") on their Information Management delivery planning. Agency X has two main purposes - to manage the overall allocation for core funding in their area of government, and to inform the policy agenda for portfolio X at a strategic level. (As is typical in the Australian Public Sector, strategic policy-making and funding are segregated from the operational delivery of services to the public, which are funded by Agency X but executed by various other agencies with their own Ministers).

Agency X already has a relatively clear strategic view of its Information Management agenda. The Information Strategy has recently been endorsed at an Executive level and defines a roadmap of the things that the Agency wants to achieve and has established a sensible timetable for when it wants to do them by. The staff are information-savvy and very motivated by using data, both to monitor the effectiveness of the agency's programmes and as evidence to support the design of new funding initiatives. My current role is to consult with the Agency on an advisory basis and help them flesh out some answers to the "how to do it?" question. So far, so good.

(Aside. Speaking as a taxpayer, I do sometimes ponder the question of whether government agencies should really need to spend so much money using external consultants to do their thinking for them. But then "Consultant-me" quickly gives "Taxpayer-me" a hard mental slap and tells "Taxpayer-me" that about 75% of my business is derived from providing advisory services to government agencies, so would I kindly like to pull myself together and just get-the-bloody-hell on with it...)

Back to Agency X. As we've been going through the Information Management planning exercise and getting some real progress on a workable, progressive plan that will deliver the Information Strategy and meet the overall stated requirements, two thorny questions came up that no-one had previously thought to ask: "Why are we doing this?" swiftly followed by "Why now?". Everyone had been so focused on getting the Information Strategy defined to answer the "what" and "how" questions that "why" didn't ever get thought about - until now. Cue much angst amongst the information user community, who can see their much-desired and long-awaited information capability evaporating before you can say "quantifiable benefits".

(By the way, preparing a robust Business Case might seem like a fairly obvious thing to think about if you're planning any form of investment. Yet in my experience, Agency X aren't at all unusual in their situation, and its not a problem that's confined to government entities. I've come across plenty of commercial businesses that have been similarly naive in their approach to substantiating their rationale for proceeding with an Information Management initiative.)

Having now further explored these questions with Agency X, it became apparent quite quickly that they actually don't have a "compelling event" to make them do something fundamentally different. There would be value overall, yes, but it's largely incremental and often somewhat unquantifiable (statements to the effect of "better policy-making", "delivering a more effective Service programme to the public" etc. etc.). On the face of it, it's pretty difficult, then, to make an immediate case for making the significant investment that would be required if they were to deliver against their strategic Information Management agenda (and it also gets to the heart of why they've not really done much beyond well-intentioned skunk-works up until now).

So, how to deal with this? How to make the business case for investment in Information Management when you can't (easily) show a return?

On examining the situation with Agency X a little further, I've concluded that this classic "we really think that we should but the benefits are unquantifiable so we probably won't" paradox is actually only a symptom. I think that the underlying consideration, and one which can be applied to all organisations, is one of information salience.

Just as with concepts in business process mapping where one can identify the "salience" (or relative importance) of a process to the business, it is similarly possible to categorise the information holdings within an organisation based on their relative importance to the operations of the business. The simple classification schema that I suggest for Information Salience is as follows:

  • "Identity" - information is part of the "corporate DNA" that identifies the Organisation to the market; information delivery is fundamentally what the company is known for. For example, Reuters is a pure information business - providing information is simply what Reuters does, information is what people buy from them. A credit-scoring agency or database marketing firm make similar information-as-a-product market offers.
  • "Core" - the business operates on the flow of information, and without it, it wouldn't function. For example, under the hood, a bank could be considered an information management company with a banking license. A telecommunications services business is an information management company with a telco operator's license. Without a strong core of robust information management and high-performance data processing at the heart of their business model, these organisations would simply cease to exist. (Contrast this with the example of fast-moving consumer-goods entity, whose manufacturing plant will continue to make stuff and ship it out the door irrespective of whether the management reports on productivity are prepared at month-end).
  • "Mandatory" - information has to be controlled and traceable for audit purposes, or to meet legislative obligations. An oilfield drilling and production operator needs to have traceable, auditable management of its information or risk having its license revoked. Government organisations must demonstrate compliance with data protection and Freedom of Information obligations.
  • "Hygiene" - back-office functions that deliver underlying support to the Organisation, but are not core to its business operations. Typically, these are processes that should easily be outsourced. Accounts Payable processing and HR payroll are good examples of processes where information is important to their operation, but efficiency and effectiveness of such functions are actually marginal to the overall success of the Organisation. (Aside: interestingly, it's often these types of processes that get a disproportionately significant share of any corporate funding for optimisation and enhancement, even though they're furthest removed from the business value chain!)

Notice too, that the "optimise and enhance" mandate for Information Management can apply to all four categories in the Information Salience model - hence the reason that I have not given it a category of its own.

Back to Agency X. I think they have been struggling to articulate a fundamental case for Information Management because the agency's "core business" doesn't actually rely on information to operate. In contrast to a bank or a telco (where the controllable flow of information IS their business), good information practices for this Agency are a "nice-to-have"; they help to optimise & enhance the Agency's mandate to allocate and distribute government funds, but information is not core to their operations, and it's certainly not part of the Agency's brand identity. It therefore becomes a challenge to quantify the value of investing in an Information Management approach, beyond the bare minimum necessary to achieve the "compliant" tick. Certainly, it's nigh on impossible to put $ value on the benefits.

Applying the above Information Salience model, I'd argue that for Agency X, their requirements are broadly in the "Mandatory" category - they are compelled to do something because of government imperatives for "evidence based policy making" as well as mandates for improved transparency & accountability. Information certainly isn't "Identity" process for them (it's not what they're known for), nor is it "core" (in principle they could quite easily continue to exist, even if they didn't do any reporting on what they're targeted on achieving).

Having identified this underlying challenge in the relative salience of information to Agency X, I can now start to help the Agency identify all of the "mandatory" aspects of reporting, analysis, accountability and auditability that will hopefully add up to a powerful case for taking positive action to improve their Information Management agenda - why they should do it, and why the time is now.

And if we can then approach answering the "how to do it" questions in the right manner, then Agency X will also achieve additional levels of efficiency (do more stuff with the same money) and effectiveness (do the right stuff, to the benefit of more people).

Speaking as a taxpayer, that has to be a good thing.