The changes taking place in organizations today create in line management demands for information that are not met by the old paradigms. This note offers as a possibility, a place from which to stand in relation to the changing needs of organizations and the turmoil being experienced by information professionals in today's rapidly evolving environment. The organization of the future will require that information professionals focus on the needs of their users in radical new ways. It will no longer be enough to ask, "What information does the user want?" The new paradigm demands that we answer more difficult questions like "What information does the user need," "How does he assimilate that information," and "How is the information recalled at the moment it can add value to the business process?" It is a market driven perspective focused on the application of information rather than a media driven perspective focused on the accumulation, storage and retrieval of information.
The old business paradigms are collapsing rapidly. The centralized, autocratic, top down, highly controlled organizations of the past are disappearing. "The old, bureaucratic command-and-control model, even in its currently decentralized, supposedly lean and mean version, won't be up to the challenges ahead." The effort of America's corporations to find a new, more effective form is evidence of the decrepitude of the old model. Throughout the 1980s American industry put itself through round after round of restructuring. It is remarkable how the process seems to go on and on, with cutbacks, staff reductions, and downsizing. It has come to the point that management now resists the temptation to say after each new announcement, "This time we've gotten it right."
The old style, bureaucratic command-and-control organization grew out of a mechanical model based on a Newtonian view of the world. In the age of virtual reality, instant communications and the global village, such an organization can no longer react quickly enough to remain competitive. In its place a new organizational model is developing that owes more to quantum theory than Newton and looks more organic than mechanical. In many quarters this organizational model of the future is being referred to as the learning organization.
The implications of the learning organization for the information steward may be profound. Peter Senge, MIT researcher and author of a book called The Fifth Discipline, says that "In contemporary speech, the meaning of learning has been dragged down to 'taking in information.'" He offers an alternative in which we should think of learning as the expansion of one's capacity to create, to produce results. If you accept Senge's definition of learning, a learning organization can be seen as an organization that is continually expanding its capacity to create the future. Indeed, Arie De Geus, the former head of strategic planning for the Royal Dutch Shell group said, "The ability of an organization to learn faster than its competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage." You will recognize the learning organizations as ones that have the ability to manage successive cycles of growth and survival over time and that have managers who respond effectively and collectively to signals from the business environment.
WHAT IS LEARNING AND HOW DOES IT OCCUR?
Gestalt psychologists Max Wertheimer, Wolfgang Kohler, and Kurt Koffka studied the process of learning and the development of insight using apes as subjects. In a typical experiment a hungry ape would be placed in a cage with a stalk of bananas hung from the roof. In the cage would be a long stick and a heavy box. The ape would pace around eyeing the bananas. After a while he would jump up and try to reach the bananas. He might jump again and again, each time failing to reach the bananas. He might take the stick and try to knock down the bananas, try and try and try, but he would fail each time.
Up to this point there would have been no step-by-step learning that could be charted on a practice curve, there was only failure. But suddenly, the ape would grab the stick, climb to the box, leap up swinging the stick, and knock down the bananas. The ape had grasped the pattern of action required and from that time on could repeat the pattern. He might improve his performance in climbing or hitting with the stick but from that point on he would always be able to coordinate the parts of the whole.
There are three attributes here that are of significance to the information steward. The solution comes abruptly as a flash of insight. The solution is permanent and carries over into other experiences. The solution comes about because the learner perceives the relationship of the different factors in the scene rather than responding to isolated stimuli. The emphasis at every stage is upon perceiving relationship, rather than responding to isolated objects or stimuli. Factors which hinder the understanding of this relationship are these: The subject may lack sufficient motivation, the elements of the situation may be scattered too widely for the relationship to be perceived (for example, when the stick is out of sight), and the subject may have insufficient experience to be able to master the skills needed.
LEVERAGING CORE COMPETENCIES
Becoming a learning organization is not sufficient for organizational success in the future. The ability to change rapidly and to innovate is not enough by itself. Organizations must engage in change and innovation around what they do best, their core competencies. It is in leveraging these core competencies that the learning organization finds success in the marketplace.
Core competencies are the collective learning in the organization, especially how to coordinate diverse production skills and integrate multiple streams of technologies. Core competencies are about harmonizing streams of technology, about the organization of work and the delivery of value, about communications, involvement and a deep commitment to working across organizational boundaries.
At least three tests can be applied to identify core competencies in a company. First, a core competence provides potential access to a wide variety of markets. For example, a company may have a core competence in logistics, permitting it to compete effectively in industries ranging from package express to wholesale distribution. Secondly, a core competence makes a significant contribution to the perceived customer benefits of the end product. For example, the small internal combustion expertise of Honda adds perceived customer benefits to products ranging from snowmobiles to chain saws. Finally, a core competence is difficult for competitors to imitate. For example, there is 3M's ability to innovate new products through its combination of research skills and organizational style.
THE ROLE OF THE INFORMATION STEWARD
So, what does all this have to do with information resources? Whatever it is called, in most organizations the people who make up the information resources function are the stewards of information in the organization. They are the ones responsible for the identification, storage and retrieval of information. And, it is information that makes possible the leveraging of core competencies in learning organizations.
What does this stewardship mean in terms of the records manager's role in the learning organization of the future? It presents an opportunity to take responsibility for not simply the identification, storage and retrieval of information in your organization, but for its application and use as well. It offers the possibility of a market-based approach to information in organizations; an approach in which information has value only to the extent that it is applied successfully in pursuit of some business objective. It offers the possibility of taking responsibility for the right information being in the mind of the right person at the very time that person needs that information to make a business decision that will add value to the company. This market-driven paradigm of information management asks the question, "What do my colleagues need, when do they need it and, most importantly, how can I get it into their heads where it can be used?"
What are the dynamics of information in your organizations today? Most employees are faced with information overload. There is simply too much information being received. It is very difficult to sift through all the noise to find that one piece of information that might make a real difference. Indeed, we spend a great deal of time digesting reams of irrelevant data on the fear that we will miss that one critical piece of information lying out there in the ether.
The sheer volume of information available today has driven us in search of new systems to index, store, and retrieve data. We have moved from scrolls to books to computer tapes to laser disks, all in search of better, more economical and faster ways to store and retrieve data. But, in the learning organization the storage and retrieval of information may be yesterday's question. We are already seeing the outsourcing of data storage and retrieval because it is viewed as a routine, mechanized, low value added activity. The question for the future in information management, the question learning organizations have not yet answered, is how to sort the mass of information for that which is relevant, how to make that relevant information comprehensible and how to make sure that the people who need that relevant information have it available in their heads when it can add value to the business.
KNOWLEDGE IN THE LEARNING ORGANIZATION
A recent Fortune magazine cover story talked about the chief ingredient in the new economy - intellectual capital in business. According to Larry Prusak, a principal at Ernst & Young's Center for Business Innovation in Boston, intellectual capital is the intangible assets of skill, knowledge and information, "the intellectual material that has been formalized, captured and leveraged to produce a higher-valued asset." Charles Handy, the author of The Age of Unreason, estimates that the intellectual assets of a corporation are usually worth three or four times the tangible book value. And yet, when CEOs are asked how much of the knowledge in their companies is used they typically say, "About 20%."
This suggests an opportunity for someone to step up and take responsibility not for the storage and retrieval of information, but for the application of information in the business. Jed Neiderer, a change management consultant with Houston-based King, Chapman & Broussard, says there are three kinds of information: Information that is known but which you can't find; information that is known and which you can find; and information that is known and which finds you and moves you to action.
It is this third kind of information that will be required in the businesses of the future. What does information that finds you and moves you to action look like? It is information that is applied, not just managed. It is information that is used, not just stored and retrieved. It is information that is an asset, not just accessed. It is information that is relevant, not just available. It is information that is understood, not just delivered. It is information that adds value, not just expense.
The challenge offered by our changing business environment is to identify the third type of information and share it effectively with those in the organization whom it will prompt to action. It suggests a shift from information management to information application, a further shift along the continuum of usability from data to information to knowledge. Information is no longer an organizational goal; the goal has become knowledge which can be applied in pursuit of profits.
The shift from the storage and retrieval of information to the application of knowledge creates new demands in the organization. If the organizational goal is knowledge, the provider must be concerned about ease of comprehension, retention and application. Indeed, providers must concern themselves with how their colleagues assimilate information to create knowledge - in effect, how people learn.
Information resources is already responsible for storing and retrieving information for the organization. But if it is to concern itself with the identification of necessary information, its understanding and use, information resources must begin to understand how its users learn, retain and recall information. For information only produces results when it arrives in the consciousness of the user at the appropriate time.
The experts have identified at least three personal styles relevant to the way users integrate information: auditory, visual and kinesthetic. If the goal is to get information into the heads of the users in a way that it is retained and available for use when needed, it is necessary to understand the user's style.
The auditory person may learn things best by saying, hearing and seeing words. These individuals have highly developed auditory skills. They often think in words, rather than pictures. Their language will be filled with references to words. "Say that again." "I hear you." "Do you mean to say..." and other word references will pepper the language of an auditory individual. You can reach this group through the written and spoken word and in doing so you will be making it easy for them to assimilate and retain information. Visual persons think in images and pictures. They see patterns, shapes and connections and can often report clear visual images when thinking about something. They are often very observant. You will hear the language of the visual person filled with references to sight. "I see," "I can visualize that" and "Could you illustrate that for me?" are phrases that might commonly be found in the language of the visual person. If you try to provide information to this group with words alone, you will be less effective than if you can illustrate the point with graphs, charts, slides and pictures or engage them in visual descriptions of the data.
Finally, the kinesthetic person is hands-on. Kinesthetics process knowledge through bodily sensations; they are doers. You can often recognize this type as the active person, drumming the table, walking around in meetings and involved in sports. The kinesthetic learns by doing. To reach the kinesthetic in an effective way, you need to involve him in dynamic, kinetic and visceral activities, touching, manipulating and moving.
As you consider a new role for information resources in the organization of the future, one of the critical issues will become "how do I reach individuals in the organization with information packaged in a way to make it easy for them to comprehend and retain the information." Developing a strategy to identify the personal learning styles of your information users and packaging information to speak to those styles will make you much more effective in moving beyond the role of information custodian to information steward.
HOW ADULTS LEARN
There are important distinctions to be made in considering how adults convert information into knowledge - how they learn. Cambridge Consultants developed a model of how adults learn, arguing that adults bring with them to the learning process job and life experiences and values, expectations about how what they learn will be of value to them on the job, and learning preferences.
For effective learning, adults must (1) be convinced of the need to learn, (2) relate what they know or have done to the new information, (3) understand how the new information will help them solve their problems, (4) see "the big picture" as well as the details, (5) actively participate in and know where they are in the learning process, and (6) have meaningful instructional cues, have the apply new information immediately and expect constructive feedback around the learning process.
Finally, one can look beyond the learning styles of individuals, beyond how adults learn to ask the really important question, how do individuals innovate. Research by William C. Miller, a consultant formerly with SRI International, reprises the work done by the Gestalt psychologists. Miller suggests that there are four distinct innovation styles. The experimenting style: "Let's make new combinations and test them one at a time." The exploring style: "Let's question our assumptions and see where we end up, even though we have no clear goal insight." The visioning style: "Let's develop a clear sense of long-term purpose to guide our innovation efforts." And the modifying style: "Let's build on what we already have and make improvements where we can." Particularly astute companies will realize that different people learn, and innovate to improve matters, in different ways. They will seek out individuals who can help people in the organization access relevant information, learn that information and use that information to innovate. The information professional is uniquely positioned to play this role.
THE NEW PARADIGM FOR INFORMATION SERVICES
I have discussed the learning organization, how people learn and how they innovate to deliver a future that is different from the past. I am suggesting that the new paradigm in corporate information services, what companies really want from the people in charge of their information, is to take responsibility not only for the storage and retrieval of the information, but for its application and use, as well.
Once you become accountable for the application and use of information in the organization, tasks and responsibilities begin to change. You become concerned about what information people need to create value to the company. You become concerned about how people access that information in a convenient way and you become concerned about how they retain that information and recall it when needed. Your goals expand with this new role in the organization to include the current and anticipated information needs of the organization. You begin to address questions like, "What information is lacking in the organization?" and "What information, if it were available, would make a real difference in how we do our business?" You begin to focus on the packaging and presentation of information to assure that your customers "get it" easily. You develop a concern for how effectively information gets retained in the collective mind of the organization and whether it gets recalled when it is needed and relevant. You might even begin to explore how to measure the utilization of information in the organization and what would be required to increase the total amount of available, relevant information in the minds of the organization's employees. It is intriguing to realize that decades after entering the information age, we still have no way of measuring the application of information in our businesses.
So, what does this new paradigm look like in action, what is its visible impact on the world of work, and where does this new knowledge reside? Each of us carries around examples of what I believe organizations will require from the information stewards of the future. Each of us has experienced this markets-focused approach to information. For example, millions of Americans know the recipe for one of the most successful fast food products of all time. Is there anyone who doesn't know how to make a McDonalds Big Mac? "Two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce...."
In a profession that has experienced storage media beginning with cave walls and papyrus and ranging to bits and bytes and laser discs, one must consider the ultimate storage medium, the storage medium of the twenty-first century, the human mind. One must take responsibility for getting the information necessary for the creation of a dramatic future into the minds of colleagues when and where they need it to produce for organizations the added value that is within each of us. As Aldous Huxley said, "The great end in life is not knowledge, but action."
1. Walter Kiechel III, "The Organization that Learns," Fortune, March 12, 1990, p. 133.
2. Peter M. Senge, The Fifth Discipline, (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1990).
3. J.R. Kidd, How Adults Learn, (New York, NY, Prentice Hall, 1978), pp. 171-73.
4. C.K. Prahalad & Gary Hamel, "The Core Competence of the Corporation," Harvard Business Review, May-June, 1990, pp. 83-4.
5. Thomas A. Stewart, "Your Company's Most Valuable Asset: Intellectual Capital," Fortune, October 3, 1994, p. 68.
6. Charles Handy, The Age of Unreason, (Boston, Massachusetts: Harvard Business School Press, 1990).
AUTHOR: Jerry N. Gauche holds an L.L.M. (Taxation) from the New York University School of Law, a J.D. from the University of Oregon School of Law, and a B.S. (Economics) from the University of Oregon. Jerry is the Vice President, Organizational Effectiveness, for National-Oilwell, a $550 million manufacturer and distributor of oil field equipment and supplies headquartered in Houston, TX. In this role he is responsible for organizational change efforts designed to produce new results. Consequently, he spends considerable time inquiring into the needs of organizations and the possible shape of the future. Jerry was Executive Assistant to the CEO of BP Exploration U.S. and played a major role in the organizational change efforts of British Petroleum. He has been accountable for managing records throughout his career with responsibility for tax libraries and records at The Standard Oil Company (Ohio) and information services as General Manager, Central Services for BP Exploration in Houston, Texas, where he was the management sponsor of BP's document imaging system. Jerry has been tax counsel to a Fortune 50 diversified energy company and legislative counsel to a United States senator.…