The Top 7 Mistakes Execs Make in Information Management

Mark Atkins, Intraversed


The Top 7 Mistakes Execs Make in Information Management

In our many years of working with complex business environments, facing information management (IM) issues, we have continually seen senior Executives who have misconceptions about how information should be managed.

And they continue to hold these misconceptions despite their continued struggle to get the numbers they need to run their businesses.

Over time, we’ve realised these misconceptions – or wrong thinking – along with the resulting behaviour – wrong doing – can be boiled down to 7 key mistakes which will almost always lead to wrong numbers in reporting activities.

Mistake 1: Information management is an IT responsibility

Before information technology existed, information was captured using paper, which might include forms, invoices, hand-typed documents, and clippings, etc. This information was stored in files and filing cabinets. Business processes were established to capture, file and, when necessary, retrieve, archive and destroy that physical information.

When information technology was introduced to businesses, it replaced the physical files and cabinets with electronic databases, files and folders. Businesses had to develop ways that information is captured, stored, retrieved, archived, and destroyed. Understandably, this development fell to IT professionals.

But the information that the business captures – the content – and how the business use it, is determined by each business function area. However, because IT had to develop the systems, it was assumed that all responsibility for IM would fall to IT, and IT has generally accepted this mission.

This misconception that IT are (and should be) responsible for all aspects of information management means accountability for IM falls to the CIO, or CDO.

The reality is that information management is a shared accountability across all departments. Specific IM functions need to be aligned to business functions and accountability for those IM functions should lie with business staff within those functional areas.

Mistake 2: We should rely on industry definitions for metrics and terminology

Studies continue to show that poor definition of information is the root cause of up to 38% of failed projects. Yet many senior Executives (along with other management) have been led to believe that the use of purchased industry data models and industry definitions is a reasonable choice which speeds up project delivery and negates the need for business analysts and data architects.

There are two points that need to be made clear:

  • industry models are designed for reference, not adoption, and are deliberately created to be “flexible” (or “generalised”) so that they can be applied within the specifics of many contexts; and

  • industry definitions, including those provided by regulatory bodies such as APRA, are generally – and probably deliberately – vague. This allows for necessary room to move in the various contexts to which the regulatory body applies.

Both of these points, if ignored, lead to confusion within organisations around metrics and regulatory requirements. Not defining your language and not designing systems to correctly ‘fit’ your business functions leads to inappropriate interpretation and application.

Every organisation is unique. You can’t short-cut the thinking and planning and still expect satisfactory outcomes.

While the quality-cost-speed (project management) triangle will always apply to projects, defining a specific business term or metric should only need to be done once. If done well, such definitions become the foundation of future initiatives (saving time and money) and can become a means of aligning the organisation’s thinking and doing.

In other words, a quality corporate wide glossary that provides agreed definitions to all key business terms and metrics can help align business function to strategic goals and allows easier, clearer communication, especially around project delivery.

Mistake 3: Band-aid solutions are OK.

We often encounter situations where opinion, not proven, factual need, drives investment. Particularly, this seems to occur where organisational silos have evolved to produce cavernous disconnection between the needs of the organisation and the needs of the department. Too often we see senior Executives being persuaded to invest in some new technology which they’re told will solve their problem and improve a bunch of other things at the same time. But there has not been enough time and effort given to finding the real cause first. That’s a recipe for large scale unnecessary investment - investment that would be better utilised elsewhere.

As an example, one of our clients needs transport related data to be collected in order to support its investment planning and maintenance activities. The most senior Executive required a metric to be reported that could also have been provided by that data. However, that data is not being collected because the measurement technology they have in place is not designed for that purpose and therefore not quite reliable enough.

What is needed is investment in new measuring technology.

However, without understanding the full picture, a member of that organisation “solved” the problem (as they saw it) by purchasing data very similar to that which was required, from a third-party organisation. This “solved” the senior Executive’s immediate reporting needs, so ongoing funding for this purchase was approved. But it did not provide the information required for planning and maintenance. Instead, because the data was very expensive, it hijacked the funds that should have been used towards addressing the underlying deficiency in the organisation’s operational ability.

The senior Executive has been convinced that the problem had been solved. But in reality, it was a very poor long-term decision.

Before investing in technology, organisations should establish cross-functional teams to evaluate the root cause of the issue, and understand the overall informational needs, before assessing the full impact of any proposed technological solutions.

Mistake 4: A tool is the solution

There’s a saying we often quote: “A fool with a tool is still a fool.”

How a person translates information as they input the data into a form, and how staff interpret and copy or disseminate information that they have acquired from a database or system, is beyond the control of the technology or tool being used. But it is often where information management problems really lie.

Having a tool is pointless if tactual, day-to-day processes are not accounted for properly.

Too often, we come across individual roles (or whole departments) that are established only to run their tools.

Data quality tools are a good example. “Cottage industry” departments are maintained to perform a data cleaning process. Data cleaning is a process that is in heavy demand because the organisation does not make the larger investment to fix the root causes of its problems and instead has purchased a tool and believe it to be a solution. This was not only a classic band-aid approach (see Mistake #3) but also demonstrates the belief that problems can be solved with work arounds, rather than solving them by finding the root cause and resolving that. This is a particularly foolish decision, given that those same departments could be better utilised in performing functions that are far more valuable to the organisation in the long term.

.Quality information management can only be addressed by understanding that business processes are often the unseen root cause of information problems. Teaching and incentivising good information management behaviour and quality business processes in staff should be the first line of problem solving – not the purchase of a tool.

Mistake 5: My people inform me of information issues

This is a discouragingly common misperception held by Execs and managers all too often. “Sure, my people tell me when there’s a problem”.

But our response is “How do you know?”

Thinking that a direct report will be comfortable talking about the information struggles of their division or unit, without encouragement or the right attitude from the manager, is simply naïve, wishful thinking.

We all know that managers at all levels can create unhelpful cultures. And if that unhelpful culture is a “no issues” environment (see also our blog on issues management here you’re likely to be living with significant unseen risk and human-action-heavy workarounds to hide and address issues that managers don’t know about.

So, it’s a vital question Execs need to ask of themselves – am I encouraging my direct reports to be transparent with issues, problems and the troubles they’re encountering with obtaining reliable information?

So often, in our engagements in large organisations, as we begin to resolve issues in reporting, those actively involved in creating the reports realise the impact the poor figures of the past may have caused or be causing, and they refuse to inform managers and Execs because they fear repercussions, such as reprimand, career inhibiting or simply being seen as failing at their role. This indicates poor management-created culture.

Execs and managers should work hard to ask their direct reports about information issues they’re facing, and then respond without judgement or demand, but as a mentor whose job is to help them in their efforts to resolve the problem.

Mistake 6: We have an information governance framework, therefore we have information governance

It’s an unavoidable reality in today’s digital world – we are all required to establish and be subject to governance. Yes, it’s a hassle, but it’s also required.

So, businesses go about creating an information governance framework, and appointing an information governance head (or someone who is accountable for information governance). Once this is done, Exec’s think they can tick the governance box and be done with it.

But as we like to say, “what gets measured, gets done.”

If your governance isn’t actively measured, it’s not getting done.

Approaching the establishment of governance as a project, with an end point and a box tick, is the fastest route to governance that isn’t effective.

Governance must be business-as-usual, it must be managed (meaning measured and reported on) and it must have funding to be effectively implemented AND maintained. This means investment in people, in tools, in the development of measures and reporting.

A large amount of what we do when we consult with an organisation that is struggling to get the quality reporting they desire is to establish truly robust governance, train staff to maintain and measure it, and manage the outcome of that measuring and maintenance (i.e. issues management). This alone will resolve many of the obstacles contributing to poor reporting and, if actively supported as business-as-usual, will avoid future reporting issues from developing.

Mistake 7: Governance roles don’t take much time or effort

Following on from the last mistake, Execs who think that governance is a quick and easy add-on to the normal functions of staff are mistaken. Such thinking will never establish or maintain effective governance, and will therefore put the business at risk of poor reporting and business inefficiency.

When governance is not seen as a vital and significant part of running a business, it doesn’t get the investment it requires to be effective. Successful governance will require investment in the necessary staff time, staff training/education and the tools and resources staff need to create an governance-positive landscape.

We can always tell whether the Executive Committee of an organisation has wrong thinking around governance by how aware the average staff member is of the governance requirements that apply to their role. We often hear from data stewards, (who are usually well-meaning volunteers, being good data citizens) that they were told they’d only need to allocate a couple of hours per month. In reality they end up being requested to perform many tasks, for which they are rarely rewarded, and which their managers consider to be detracting from core objectives, and are therefore unsupportive.

Where Execs think correctly about governance, they promote it as vital throughout their division hierarchies. Governance is valued with investment to ensure staff understand what’s required of them and staff are also aware that their compliance to requirements is being monitored, measured and rewarded.

Resolving the 7 Mistakes

Identifying these mistakes in thinking is just the first step in establishing great information governance. Resolving the wrong doing that has resulted from the wrong thinking is a much bigger task, and often left undone. The mountain is just too great.

In future blogs, we’ll be offering more information on the path to successfully resolving these issues, so stay tuned. We’ve got decades of experiencing doing just that and we know it’s possible. It just takes an Executive Committee willing to tackle the mountain because they believe in establishing the long-term business assurance of their company.

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Mark Atkins, Intraversed

Mark Atkins

Mark is a co-founder & Chief Development Officer at Intraversed, helping organisations establish the Intralign Ecosystem, an award winning information management & governance methodology, to achieve reliable information, stable tech spend & greater IT project success.

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