Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Information for Control: Another Management Proverb?

Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Information for Control: Another Management Proverb?

Article excerpt

As Herbert Simon (1946) pointed out decades ago, some ideas are so powerful that they become uncritically absorbed into the theory and practice of public management. The cybernetic theory of information for control is just such a powerful idea (Deutsch, Markovits, and Platt, 1986), and nowhere is this idea more obvious than with information and management control systems (Stout, 1980). A great deal of intellectual and financial resources have been invested in the creation and maintenance of management information systems, nearly all of it grounded in the "Principle" that information increases management control. Yet, the basic cybernetic principle of information increasing control remains largely unproven and certainly problematic in public management. In this research, we ask the question, Do management information systems lead to greater management control?

The presumption of information for control is as pervasive in our personal lives as it is in public management. For example, we presume that more and more information about our checking accounts such as the average daily balance on a detailed bank statement, the last three checks to dear as told by a touch-tone teller, or the available balance as reported by the automatic teller helps us to control expenditures, prevent overdrafts, and balance the budget at home. Right? The same presumption is true in public management and particularly in project management of large contracts, which is the focus of this research. Public management theorists and practitioners presume that the more and better the information on project cost, schedule, and quality in their computer systems, the greater the project control and the less the actual performance variances (Cleland, 1990; Steiss, 1982). Our research tests the information for control proposition by looking at the management information systems of a random sample of 99 U.S. Air Force defense projects.

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Information for Control

Information is what is communicated about a particular event or situation. Information theory has three strong and persistent assertions: (1) information decreases uncertainty, (2) information slows entropy, and (3) information increases system control (Weiner, 1948; Yates, 1989). Control is the managerial process of decreasing or dampening variance in a system (Anthony, 1965). Just like the quintessential cybernetic thermostat, the process of information increasing control in organizations is presumed to be a natural process of information feedback and deviation correction (Beniger, 1986). Feldman and March (1981) label the cybernetic or engineering approach to information in organizations as the signal hypothesis--the direct, systematic application of information for organizational control.

A great deal of management practice and literature continues to enthusiastically support the signal hypothesis. Organization and decision theorists consider information as a prerequisite for control and rational decision making (Lord and Maher, 1990; Steinbruner, 1974). Nowhere is the cybernetic optimism more exuberant, however, than in the design of management information systems for organizations (Senn, 1982). The cybernetic model is not only pervasive but has hardly changed since its inception. Yet, experts now caution that, "The more the MIS paradigm relies on the cybernetic model, the more it weakens its own legitimacy" (LeMoigne and Sibley, 1986, p. 241).

Increasingly, practical experience and grounded research are finding the connection between information and control to be less certain. On the cover of a National Academy of Public Administration report (1983) is the picture of Gulliver tied to the beach by hundreds of tiny Lilliputians. The picture and the report vividly present the problem of federal managers tied down by their own management control systems. Other research finds that information can have dysfunctional uses such as misrepresentation (Lawler and Rhode, 1976), and rational expectations of using information for decisions is both limited and apparently unordered (Simon, 1957; March, 1988). …

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