What Managers Need: Context, Not More Content

Intranets can provide perspective for executives

Peter Drucker, generally regarded as one of the foremost management consultants, has best expressed a viewpoint many executives hold: until now, the information revolution has centered on the collection, storage, transmission, analysis, and representation of information. However, decision-making has not gotten any easier. In fact, all this information technology might have made the job harder.

Using technology without specific strategies has resulted in some rather odd facts of the “electronic” age. Computer manufacturers had promised the paperless office. Instead, companies' office paper shipments have risen 51 percent since 1983. Americans now possess 148.6 million e-mail addresses, cellular phones, pagers, fax machines, voice mailboxes, and answering machines—up 365 percent from 40.7 million in 1987. Throw in 170 million standard-issue telephones and you have a better picture of how overwhelmed we are with information.

Those figures were compiled several years ago. Meanwhile, technology continues to grow at an enormous rate. More recently, a study released by Pitney Bowes, Inc. (Stamford, CT) showed that the average businessperson in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom sends or receives 190 messages a day. Included in this level of daily communication are 30 e-mails, 22 voice messages, four pager beeps, and three express mailings along with faxes, phone calls, and letters.

This indiscriminate knowledge sharing isn’t strictly confined to electronic information. Employees are regularly bombarded with innumerable documents, including performance improvements, booklets, safety manuals, employee directories, corporate resource directories, and so much more. The typical Fortune 500 company publishs thousands of such documents annually.

Too Much Adding, Not Enough Subtracting

Drucker reasons that past computer and information technology has had barely any impact on strategic decisions. He observes that the current use of information does not affect management decisions, and believes that information technology has little to do with a CEO's decision to build a new office building, school, hospital, and so forth. IT is focused on the collection, storage, transmission, analysis, and representation of information. Simply adding more information does not necessarily made it any easier to make a decision. Drucker notes that the information technology revolution so far has been a producer of data rather than a producer of information.

Internets, faxes, e-mails, and Intranet technologies provide more content and data—but little direction. Executives know that business success is based on creating value and wealth. The degree to which departments, such as IT, contribute to this business success depends on how well each supports the organization’s mission. IT has helped preserve assets and control costs, but the strategic value (and thus the usefulness of IT) has been extremely limited.

Management values information technology that helps make sense of endless data so it can be turned into useful knowledge. Data needs to be refined so it can help focus efforts. Refining data can ultimately help executives make the correct choices and act in a unified way. Refining data so it becomes useful information requires tools that help organizations and/or groups keep focused on what they are really about, their mission, and where they should be going. Only when this occurs can IT be thought of as an area that adds true value, wealth, and meaning to work.

Focus on Context

For IT to be highly valued requires a rethinking of information's purpose. Information should not be plentiful or easy to share—such thinking just creates information overload. Excessive information sharing that simply makes content readily available is more curse than cure. A manager’s biggest decision will be how to ration scarce attention, not receive more data. New information technologies that help filter and redirect e-mail and telephone calls can certainly help, but ultimately management decision-making is all about setting priorities.

Information technology, to be useful to managerial decision-making, must be combined with a conceptual rethinking of both the purpose and meaning of that information. We should begin by focusing on the context of what and how the information will be used and not simply adding more and more content. Helping managers understand the meaning of that information and its implementation to their strategic objectives is essential to being seen as more valued. Subtracting the content and adding more context makes a manager's decision-making easier.

IT should focus on using its expertise to find better ways of integrating managerial strategies and visions within a group, department, or organization that will be essential to adding value, wealth, and meaning to work. Intranet technology can be one of those tools. It can add context by helping control and redirect effort while reducing information overload. Intranets can be used for tracking, analyzing, and displaying essential information critical to executive decision-making.

Unlike the information filter that simply restricts information, today's intranet technology can help managers identify the critical information needed to make good decisions. Web technology and supporting software can be used to measure, display, and provide continual real-time feedback to help managers stay focused.

Strategic Intranets

Intranets and supporting software have the capability to add important context information by being able to track, analyze, integrate and display essential information so decision-making is easier. Intranets can be used to integrate disconnected data and show executives a more realistic picture of what is really going on. In real-time and at the click of a mouse, executives can see their critical data (such as profitability or service concerns). Intranets use integrated feedback in a series of computer screens that help team members see how they are doing and where they are headed.

Information technology can add context by creating a visual instrument console or executive dashboard. Such a display builds a sense of context—giving busy executives a “big picture” overview rather than the piecemeal perspective many get from being inundated with excessive content.

The Intranet’s amazing capability to collect and rapidly display key information means managers can deal with reality. Such an intranet can be used to give executives a clearer picture of what is going on rather than an idealized version of managerial priorities. It can be used to cross-reference and graphically display competitive benchmarks so managers can assess their degree of competitiveness or compare their strategic objectives.

As Drucker notes, what is desperately needed is not more data but rather technology that helps make sense out of the endless data that pile higher and higher. What's needed is technology that helps us make the right choices and behave in ways that are consistent with the organization's purpose and objective.

Today, Intranets can become a contextual tool for reshaping organizations. They add meaning and purpose to work. Ask yourself: What manager or CEO wouldn’t want to know that kind of information? If you want to improve your relationship with upper management, learn to think like them and show how you can make their decision-making process easier. Show how you can add information that is strategic.

About the Author

D. Keith Denton is CEO of CIVID3. Dr. Denton has authored 14 management books and over 150 articles. As an international consultant, he has conducted workshops and seminars in Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the U.S.