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MANAGING THE COMPANY'S MOST IMPORTANT ASSET
A modern company has many assets that have to be properly managed: physical plant, personnel, and the company's financial assets, to name just three.
To manage those different assets you need different kinds of expertise. If you are a manager, you may have the appropriate expertise within your company, or you may have to outsource, either by subcontracting or by hiring expert consultants.
For instance, large organizations generally have their own human resources department, where trained professionals oversee the hiring, training, and welfare of the workforce. On the other hand, most companies will outsource when they want to build a new facility, bringing in an architect to help design a new building and hiring a construction firm to carry out the work.
Whether internal employee or external expert, whether a personnel manager, an accountant, a lawyer, an architect, a builder, a design engineer, a personnel consultant, a market analyst, etc., each person brings a specific set of skills and experience appropriate to the particular task at hand.
In today's commercial environment, information is another asset that requires proper management. Indeed, in many industries, information is now the single most valuable asset. Among the so-called "knowledge-based economies," such as the United States or Western Europe, the management of information is taking an increasingly larger share of the cost of doing business, and that trend is likely to continue. Companies that are not able to manage their information efficiently will not be successful.
Before you can develop efficient procedures to manage information, you need to understand what it is, how it arises, and how it is transmitted. We are so used to dealing with information in our everyday lives - for instance when we communicate with each other--that we often fail to see the complexities involved.
For example, when someone approaches us in the street and says "Do you have the time?" we look at our watch and tell them what the time is, without giving the exchange a moment's thought. And yet, taken literally, the question asked requires an answer of "yes" or "no." Why don't we take it that way? Why do we instead take the question, correctly, as a request to be told the time.
"Do you have the time?" is so familiar that it rarely causes problems in everyday communication. We all know the intended meaning of the question. At least, all native English speakers know this. Problems can, and do, arise when non-native speakers first encounter such idioms. But even for native speakers, there can be problems with less ubiquitous phrases. The potential for misunderstanding is always present. Idiomatic and metaphorical use of language is not rare; it is the norm. Contrary to what we might expect, language is almost never used literally. In fact, some linguists argue that there is no such thing as literal meaning at all.
Given the importance of effective communication in business, whether you are a manager or a "drone," you need to find ways to reduce the possibility of error. To do this, you need to understand how communication takes place--how information is transmitted, from person to person, from machine to machine, and between person and machine. The majority of communication-related problems in business--some of them highly costly--can be traced back to an inadequate understanding of the nature of information.
The need to understand information--what it is and how it "flows"--is not restricted to the large company with a centralized "information processing unit." Whenever you have one person communicating with another, you have information flow, because communication can be regarded as a means for conveying information from one person to another. The communication can vary from making a simple statement, such as giving your name to someone you have just met, to providing someone with the plans for a new chemical processing plant.
Other forms of communication can also be viewed as transmissions of information. For example, questions--quests for information--can be regarded as conveying information. If I ask you "What is the time?" I convey to you the information that I want to be told the time.
Persuasion also involves the transmission of information from one person or group of people to another. In fact, it has been estimated that fully one quarter of the US national product is linked solely to "persuasion."
THE GLUE THAT BINDS THE ORGANIZATION
It is a familiar cliché that information is the glue that holds together most of today's organizations. Unfortunately, this metaphor often applies in a negative way. In many cases, information acts as the glue that causes things to stick fast when it should be the oil that keeps the wheels turning. How many times have you heard about a company that introduced a new computer system to improve its information management, only to discover that, far from making things better and more efficient, the new system led to a plethora of problems that had never arisen with the old way of doing things. The new system is capable of providing vastly more information than was ever available before, but it is hard if not impossible to extract, or it is of the wrong kind, or presented in the wrong form, at the wrong time, or delivered to the wrong person. Or there is simply too much of it for anyone to be able to use. What used to be a simple request over the phone becomes a lengthy battle with a seemingly uncooperative computer system, taking hours or even days, and eventually drawing in a whole host of people.
Why does this happen? The answer is that, for all that the newspapers tell us we are living in the Information Age, what we have is an information technology, or more precisely a collection of information technologies. We do not yet have an established science of information. As a result, we do not yet have the ability to properly design or manage the information flow that our technologies make possible.
In fact, many companies are not even aware that they need such skill. Faced with the persuasive marketing of ever-more powerful information systems, there is a great temptation to go for the "technological fix": If the present information system is causing problems, get a bigger, better, faster system. This approach is like saying that the key to Los Angeles' traffic problem is to build even more, and still bigger, roads.
In many organizations, the installation of a new computerized information system, far from improving efficiency, acts as an "information bottleneck" that slows up or prevents the information flow it was supposed to facilitate.
So what is the solution?
Just as your company has experts to manage its other assets, so too you need experts to manage your information assets. Alongside the lawyers who handle and advise on your contracts and the accountants who handle and advise on your financial assets, you also need "information scientists" who handle and advise on your information assets.
The problem, as I noted a moment ago, is that there is as yet no "science of information" and consequently there are, at present, no "information scientists." The world of information flow does not yet have the equivalent of a lawyer or an accountant.
(Actually, there is an academic discipline called "information science," but this is not what I mean here. That kind of "information science" used to be called "library science." The name was changed to try to eradicate the stuffy image of elderly ladies staffing the library checkout desk on a voluntary basis.)
WHAT IS INFORMATION?
You might think that we ought to be able to say what information is. After all, we live in an era of global communications--including radio, telephone, fax, computer networks, and satellite broadcast television--and information is the thread that ties us all together these days. By being able to transmit vast amounts of information rapidly from continent to continent, we have transformed a widely separated and diverse world into a global village. The messenger on foot or on horseback of days gone by has given way to today's Information Superhighway. So just what is this stuff called information?
Whatever it is, information can be a valuable commodity, to be collected, guarded, duplicated, sold, stolen, and sometimes killed for. Millions of people around the world spend their entire working day gathering, studying, and processing information. Entire industries have developed to manufacture equipment (and software) to store and process information.
You can't open a newspaper without reading the word "information." Numerous books have the word "information" in the title. Many people have the word "information" in their job titles.
With information all around us, then, you would think it was a simple task to say just what it is. But, like the Cheshire Cat, when you start to look closely at this stuff called information, it seems to disappear before your eyes, leaving only a tantalizing grin.
Why do we have so much difficulty saying what information is? One reason is that, although we can store information using various kinds of physical media, information itself is not physical; it is abstract. Physical objects store information in the same way that Cheshire Cat's have grins. When the Cheshire Cat vanished, all Alice was left with was the grin; similarly, take away the physical representation of some piece of information and all you are left with is the information.
Whereas information is not physical, it is not purely mental either. Our thoughts are locked inside our head, but information is in some sense "out there" in the world. Whatever it is, information exists somewhere in between the physical world around us and the mental world of human thoughts. It occupies what I call the information level.
THE NEW IRON AGE
In terms of our scientific knowledge, today's Information Age is reminiscent of an earlier era: the Iron Age. Imagine yourself suddenly transported back in time to the Iron Age. You meet a local ironsmith and you ask him "What is iron?" How will he answer? Most likely, he will show you various implements he has made and tell you that each of those was iron. But this isn't the answer you want. What you want to know, you say, is just what it is that makes iron iron, and not some other substance.
For all that he may be a first class ironsmith, your Iron Age man cannot provide you with the kind of answer you are looking for. The reason is that he has no frame of reference within which he can even understand your question, let alone give an answer. To provide the kind of answer that would satisfy you, he would need to know about the atomic structure of matter--for surely the only way to give a precise definition of iron is to specify its atomic structure.
Today, in the Information Age, we are struggling to understand information. We are in the same position as Iron Age Man trying to understand iron. There is this stuff called information, and we have become extremely skilled at acquiring and processing it. But we are unable to say exactly what it is because we don't have an underlying scientific theory upon which to base an acceptable definition.
Incidentally, in addition to the "information science" I mentioned earlier, there is another field called "information theory." This is a branch of engineering mathematics developed over the past fifty years that investigates the amount of information that may be transmitted via a particular communication channel. The focus of attention is not on information as such but on signals: How complex a signal can be transmitted through a particular channel? However, as we shall see in the ensuing chapters, there is no fixed connection between a particular signal or configuration of objects and the information it represents. It all depends on the way the information is encoded. A complex signal might not represent any information. On the other hand, the transmission of a single pulse along a wire--one bit--could represent an enormous amount of information. As a result, information theory is extremely useful for the engineers who design telephone and computer networks. But it is of little relevance if you want to study the way people communicate with each other.
What we need then, is a genuine science of information, a science on which we can build an understanding of communication. Since the early 1980s, a small number of researchers connected with Stanford University's Center for the Study of Language and Information (myself included) have been trying to develop such a theory. It is called situation theory.
Situation theory starts out by recognizing that information is transmitted in situations--the situation when one colleague talks to another, the situation when a person sits down at a computer and consults a database, the situation when one computer communicates with another. In order to analyze the way information flows, you have to begin by examining those kinds of situations. (Exactly why you have to look at the situation will be made clear in the pages that follow.) Situation theory sets out to analyze situations just as atomic physics sets out to analyze atoms.
In the following pages, I will outline situation theory in simple, straightforward terms. In the meantime, let me remark that, although the theory is still very much in its infancy, it has already chalked up a number of specific--and in some cases spectacular--successes, among them:
* The resolution of a philosophical puzzle about language that was first posed by the ancient Greeks, and which had resisted numerous attempts at solution. (The Liar Paradox of Epimenedes.) [Barwise and Etchemendy (1987)]
* The design and implementation of an interactive instructional program to develop skills in formal reasoning using information presented in a combination of linguistic and visual forms. (Hyperproof.) [Barwise and Etchemendy (1994)]
* The first realistic and useful analysis of the phenomenon of "common knowledge," a fascinating phenomenon that plays a significant role in social, business, and political life. (Common knowledge occurs when two or more people not only know something, but they all know that they all know, they all know that they all know that they all know, etc.) [Barwise (1989), Chapter 9]
* An in-depth analysis of the common linguistic device of "anaphora," whereby pronouns and other parts of speech make reference to things in the world by utilizing the prior appearance of certain words or phrases within the phrase, sentence, or discourse. [Gawron and Peters (1990)]
* A systematic treatment of counterfactual statements providing a resolution of some long standing problems with understanding how such statements work linguistically. (Counterfactual statements are of the form "If A, then B", where A is either false or else its truth or falsity is not known, possibly because it refers to some future event.) [Barwise (1989), Chapter 5]
* A comprehensive analysis of "indexicality," the feature of language whereby the same words or phrase can mean different things, depending on the context, in particular on who is speaking, where, and when. [Barwise and Perry (1983), Devlin (1991)]
* A method for modeling business and manufacturing processes that has already found commercial use. [Menzel & Mayer (1996), Devlin (1996)]
* A mathematically-based analysis of the manner in which cultural knowledge influences the way we use and understand everyday language. [Devlin & Rosenberg (1993)]
* An in-depth analysis of a particular instance of communication breakdown in the workplace, which led to a successful redesign of the data collection procedures used by the company. [Devlin & Rosenberg (1996)]
* A study of the effect of different office layouts on the efficiency and reliability of information flow among knowledge workers. [Devlin (1997b)]
All of those early successes, obtained within twenty years of the birth of the new theory, were a result of the degree to which the theory came to grips with the truly fundamental questions about information and communication. That is where we need to start our journey toward successful information management.