Information behaviour of top managers of telecommunications network units in the context of the digital transformation of the organization
Dijana Lekic, Anna Lezon Rivière, and Madjid Ihadjadene.
Introduction. Our research is set in the context the digital transformation of a large French telecommunications company. We present the results of an empirical study on the information behaviour of the top managers of telecoms network units and on the factors that influence them.
Method. The qualitative study consisted of twenty-two interviews conducted with senior executive-engineers who occupied leadership positions in the company’s network units. The main data were collected using Dervin’s sense-making interviewing approach.
Analysis. The data relative to sense-making situations was coded using sense-making methods. We also used grounded theory techniques to analyse our interview transcripts with the support of the Nvivo software.
Results. The predominant aspect of information security and the expansion of the concept of 'space', in which top managers situate their information activity, were highlighted by our model. Other determining factors were: work roles and tasks, the company’s culture and values, and situational constraints and time.
Conclusions. A model of the information behaviour of top managers was derived from the results of this empirical study. The model contributes to understanding of the information behaviour and constraints of executives in work situations. Looking forward, it could be used to explore the information activity of other groups of managers.
The digital transformation of organizations has pervaded public and private institutions and all business sectors, shaping new ways of working and providing companies with novel means to satisfy the needs of clients. The telecommunications industry has played a major role in the digital transformation of organizations (Meffert and Mohr, 2017). At the same time, telecommunications operators have been greatly affected by digital changes with the arrival of new competing communication services described as over-the-top services (Bradley et al., 2015). One of their most urgent organizational challenges has been to build new strategies and to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by digital technologies. In doing so, operators could maintain their position on the market, stay competitive and continue to generate profits (Hess et al., 2016, Westerman et al., 2011; Singh and Hess, 2017; Horlacher and Hess, 2016).
From an information standpoint, many changes have been triggered by projects arising from digital transformations. Companies have gone from using analogue to digital information and, therefore, have transformed their business processes and employees’ information behaviour. The technologies implemented in the workplace are meant to give employees access to complete and reliable information at any given moment. In this way, developing and using digital technologies aims to simplify information sharing, to break down information silos and to encourage collaboration and cross-departmental communication (Boutteau and Naïm, 2019). However, the management of digital content is still a major challenge for companies (van Hooff, 2017). To support the information activity of their collaborators, companies must find efficient approaches to manage information strategically. This is of fundamental importance in the context of top management decision making. In addition, an organization’s competitiveness depends on the ability of leaders to identify and acquire the necessary information to make the right decisions and to build an effective business strategy.
This paper presents the results of our empirical study conducted at Orange, a French telecommunications company. The digital transformation of the business has been a strategic focus for this historical provider and the changes and innovation have mainly centred on improving client satisfaction. Among other things, the company aims to offer more efficient services (e.g., enriched connectivity), to enhance its customer relations and to customise its offerings, to support the digital transformation of its corporate customers and partners, and to diversify its own activity by opening up to new markets (e.g., the creation of a fully digital bank) (Orange, 2020a). In this process of significant change (for the organizations, for the different areas of business, for work modes and relationships, etc.), the focus is on human beings, on controlling the risks related to the new digital environment, and on the opportunities afforded by this transformation. To become an exemplary ‘digital and human’ employer, the company has wanted to put digital technology at the service of its employees and to identify ways to improve and allow internal structures to evolve (Orange, 2020b).
In such a context, we focused our attention on top managers of network units who oversaw an average of 1000 agents. Our research aimed to answer the following questions: What are the information activities of these leaders, what information do they need, and what strategies do they use when searching for information? Which factors influence and shape the information behaviour of this population? How is the information managed and shared, and for what purpose? What impacts do digital technologies have on this group’s information activity?
The purpose of this research was to understand the information behaviour of a population with high levels of responsibility and to identify the constraints associated with information management and the digital environment. We also aimed to contribute to the company’s information policies and to help the Orange Group develop information management recommendations in order to provide answers to social, business-related and professional issues linked to the digital environment. To answer our research questions, we relied on the results of our empirical study conducted with twenty-two out of twenty-seven top managers of the corporation’s network units.
Since our work focuses on studying and understanding the information behaviour of top managers, it was natural for us to turn our attention to research papers in which this topic had been explored.
Information behaviour of leaders
The importance of information in managerial work has been established in many different scientific fields and, in particular, in library and information science. In a pioneering study, Aguilar (1967 cited in Choo and Auster, 1993) examined how top managers acquired strategic information to plan and guide the activities of their organization. He introduced the concept of environmental scanning whereby managers acquired information regarding the company’s outside environment. The author found that top managers used four different modes of scanning. Undirected viewing refers to the manager’s overall exposure to information. In this case, the manager observes his company’s external environment without necessarily needing to meet a precise need. The three other means of collecting information imply a more targeted form of observation: conditioned viewing excludes active research and refers to one type of information or to a field that is more or less defined; informal search, relatively limited and unstructured, aims to meet a specific need; lastly, formal search includes a plan, procedures and methods meant to obtain specific information and to solve a precise problem (Kotler, 1967; Choo and Auster, 1993).
In The Nature of Managerial Work, Mintzberg explored and described the activities and tasks associated with the manager’s position; he also defined the roles of managers (Mintzberg, 2006). Out of the ten roles he identified, the monitor, the disseminator and the spokesman were cited as information roles. These roles imply that the managers’ tasks are to observe the environment, to collect and gather the relevant information and, in turn, to share and distribute it to their subordinates. Lastly, they must also provide the information to people outside of their own units.
Choo and Auster (1993) analysed works, published from 1960 to 1990, on how managers searched, acquired and used information. The goal of such a literature review was to explore the connections between existing studies and the concept of environmental scanning coined by Aguilar (1967 cited in Choo and Auster, 1993). The results showed that information played a central role and was a core part of all managerial activities. The authors thus highlighted the fact that decision-making managers needed to absorb internal and external information to build an action plan. Managers were described as an important and “distinct” group of information users who were exposed to a huge amount of information from a multitude of sources. When they analysed the literature, the authors were led to make the following four observations: (1) the managers’ need to obtain external information had increased; (2) their information needs were determined by current and immediate problems; (3) managers preferred human information sources such as information that came from other people or which they could collect through observation; (4) lastly, they preferred oral communication and spoken media (Choo and Auster, 1993, p.24). Auster and Choo also explored the topic of information acquisition by executives in the Canadian industries of telecommunications and publishing. They found that leaders acquired and received information from multiple sources, although the majority came from printed sources (press, newspapers, reports) and personal contacts (internal staff, customers, associates, etc.). In this study, the only source of electronic information was mentioned by a leader whose company operated in the business of online financial information services (Auster and Choo, 1993, p. 611).
Kirk (2004) studied how senior managers used information in the context of work. The author analysed a manager’s information use experience, defined as the relationship between the subject (the manager) and the object (the information). She identified five different ways of using information: (1) packaging information, (2) enabling the flow of information, (3) developing new knowledge and insights, (4) shaping judgments and decisions, and (5) influencing others (Kirk, 2004, p.2). Information use is described as a holistic process with three dimensions: physical, cognitive and affective. The study showed that, apart from context, information use was determined by a manager’s principles, values and prior experience. The notion of context comprises several elements: the task the senior manager engages in, the information that is used, the organization in which the senior manager exercises his roles and, lastly, the senior manager’s information skills. Other factors influenced information use such as the credibility of sources, the information’s validity, reliability, timeliness and relevance.
In their study, which focused on information needs, Karim and Hussein (2008) aimed to understand the information behaviour of 145 managers in various organizations and sectors (financial, industrial, telecommunications). They examined the information requirements of these managers, their need for efficient information management and their overall perception of the information professional’s role in this process. The results showed that managers fulfilled their information needs mainly through their interactions with their interlocutors: colleagues, subordinates, supervisors, clients, etc. Managers collected the information in a variety of forms and formats, from both internal and external sources. They mostly sought internal information and reports, information on clients, or information on the business and its products and services. Several criteria were used to select the information: it had to be reliable, precise, accessible and readily available. Such qualities were perceived as being very important in making managerial decisions, to reach the company’s objectives and to improve services and productivity.
In a more recent study, Nicolini, Powell and Korica (2014) suggested that top managers in the medical field rarely searched and consulted information in response to a precise need. Information and knowledge were involved in a larger context, contributing to the development of the (personal) knowledgeability infrastructure. In other words, permanent exposure to information allowed top managers to be informed of events within their institution. They could connect the facts in order to make sense of their tasks and environment, and to support their decisions. When searching for information, top managers engaged in routine, occasional or intentional monitoring activities. Some of the factors that influenced the information behaviour of top managers were the institutional, normative and organizational contexts, personal characteristics, and personal preferences and experiences. The authors noticed that the respondents preferred oral information. The major sources of information used by this population in their daily work were discussions and participation in meetings and events. Written documents, external websites and e-mails were the main complements to these oral sources. Lastly, all respondents often networked within their professional environment to make contacts and obtain information, key facts or advice.
For a few years now, digital technologies have been included in the overall topic of information behaviour in companies. With a focus on the information behaviour of human resource managers in large corporations, Junghans (2016) studied how these managers searched for, processed and used information to build meaning and to make decisions. He referred to Mintzberg and described the manager as an ‘^’ needing to stay constantly informed. Junghans (2017) put forward the concept of the ‘bain d’information’ (information bath) to explain the manager’s immersion in a mass of information stemming from various sources. The manager’s information behaviour depends on multiple factors (initial education, experience, personal strategies, etc.) and is explained through key steps: acquiring information, processing it and assimilating it. With the digital revolution and the explosion of information, such an information bath is constantly supplied by multiple information flows and sources. Managers are thus faced with an amount of information that is impossible to process. Because managers fear that they might miss important pieces of information, they cannot contemplate disconnecting from their activities, their responsibilities and the various information flows. They are therefore faced with the challenge of managing information personally.
Felio (2013) focused on the communication behaviour of French managers and sought to explore the new psychosocial risks related to the intensive use of information and communication technologies. The author noticed that this population relied largely on digital technologies to share information and to provide coordination. Such technologies represent a space in which ‘real work takes place’ (Felio, 2013, p.270). The users (in this case, the managers) are active and develop strategies that allow them to adapt their uses of these technologies to their needs. Nevertheless, the respondents expressed difficulties in processing and managing the information; they also cited the misuses of digital technologies. Some of the risks that managers faced were: information overload, extended availability, constant connectivity, addiction to screens and feelings of isolation. The constant connection and access to information are explained by their need to monitor the activities within their sphere of responsibility, to stay informed about what is happening in the company during their absence, to act in the case of an emergency, to show a form of remote social support toward their collaborators, to be responsive with their clients, etc.
This literature review confirms the fact that information occupies an important place in managerial work. All members of a company, but managers in particular, face new challenges that are linked to the digital revolution. Top managers must absorb information to complete their decision-making tasks. Their cognitive load has augmented, leading them to stay constantly connected, since information is available everywhere and at any given time through new mobile devices and through quasi-constant access to the Internet. The literature has shown that the information behaviour of top managers varies and depends on multiple factors linked to their work environment. While electronic sources of information were minor in the 1990s (e.g., Auster and Choo, 1994), they have since become predominant as we have transitioned to the digital era. However, the information behaviour of professionals, and of top managers, and how they relate to the digital transformation of organizations have not been sufficiently explored. In France, we were unable to identify similar studies on the information behaviour of top managers in the field of telecommunications. Similarly, their information needs, their difficulties and constraints when managing information, and the information risks they face in the digital environment have not been examined in detail.
Our study addresses the how of the top managers’ information activity. We are interested in examining the changes introduced by the digital transformation of the organization and in studying its impacts on the information behaviour of top managers of the network units. The cited works are a theoretical foundation and a conceptual framework on which we have based our investigation.
This research stems from an empirical study conducted at Orange, a French telecommunications services provider. The study focused on the information behaviour of top managers of so-called network units, representing one of the company’s core areas. The population of the study was composed of 22 leaders (81.5% of the target population) from entities known as the Intervention Units and the Network Control Units. Our choice to focus on these key protagonists was based on the fact that many digital projects are conducted in these areas of business, thus influencing the work and business processes of these professionals. This choice also fell in line with our aim to cover two different aspects: to study the information behaviour of the leaders of entities affected by digital transformations, and to understand their perspective on the needs, changes and challenges brought on by this phenomenon. Top managers oversee the network units in charge of the construction and maintenance of the telecom network’s infrastructure. They perform their duties at high levels of responsibility and manage an average of 1000 agents. Most top managers have graduated with an engineering degree; they possess a rich managerial experience as well as in-depth knowledge of the business.
|Unit name||Total number of|
managers per unit
|Number of interviewed|
managers per unit
|Network Control Unit||5||4|
|Network Intervention Unit||22||18|
Our study was built on two constructivist methodologies: sense-making methodology (Dervin, 1983) and grounded theory (Guillemette and Luckerhoff, 2012). The data were collected using several methods and information sources: internal documentation and databases as well as observations and interviews. The main data collection was conducted by twenty-two phone interviews. The total number of study participants by type of unit and the distribution of the interviewed subjects is presented in Table 1. Of twenty-seven top managers invited to participate in the study, twenty-two responded favourably: four top managers from the Network Control Units (out of five) and eighteen top managers from the Intervention Units (out of twenty-two). The high participation rate (twenty-two respondents out of twenty-seven sought top managers) allowed us to validate this study.
The interview guide was elaborated using Dervin’s sense-making interviewing method (2008). The questions were grouped according to the method’s key concepts: situation, gap, bridges and outcomes. The questionnaire was not shared with the participants to avoid influencing them during the conversation. The interviews took place as a narrative. Once the interviewed subject had presented their job and responsibilities, they were asked to remember a work situation in which they had encountered a lack of information. The interview then proceeded and centred on the participant’s lived experiences told according to their own logic. Over the course of the subject’s narrative, we asked additional questions in an effort to collect data that would provide us with a deeper understanding of the situation and of the elements relative to its context. With the consent of the participants, all interviews were recorded for further analysis. The interviews lasted an average of sixty minutes. The recorded interviews were transcribed, amounting to a 349-page document which was used for the analysis.
Several steps were necessary to analyse the collected data. By examining business documents and databases, we gained a deeper understanding of the field and of the participants’ activities. This was critically important to conduct the interviews and, later, to analyse the collected data. The phone interviews were transcribed, rendered anonymous and analysed according to the sense-making methodology and to grounded theory. The analysis of the data using sense-making concepts was conducted manually. In tandem, we used the Nvivo qualitative data analysis software to code emerging concepts according to the grounded theory’s technique of constant comparisons. This double analytical process with both methods allowed us to use the collected data more extensively. It led us to observe the actions of the top managers through the lens of several dimensions: cognitive (ideas, thoughts, sense-making moments), emotional (feelings), situational (information needs, constraints, search strategies, and the situation’s outcome).
The results of our empirical study shed light on the information behaviour of top managers in a telecommunications network. They allowed us to put forward a model of this population’s information behaviour identified in the context of daily work situations. The concepts and influencing factors of information behaviour, as presented in our diagram (Figure 1), were based on a qualitative analysis of the interviewed subjects’ comments.
We refer to the sense-making model, coined by Dervin (1983), in our study. Dervin suggested using the sense-making approach to gain insight into the information behaviour of individuals. The actions of the subject and their movement trough time-space are observed in the context of a lived situation. The newly created meaning is therefore the manifestation of a succession of actions implemented by the subject. The time-space concept is the framework through which we studied the information behaviour of telecom network top managers. Ultimately, the situations described by the top managers were related to their recent or less recent past. Some of these situations took place at the time of the interviews and referred to recurring issues.
This population’s space is made up of the physical space, which includes all of the places occupied by the entity (buildings, facilities, offices, etc.), as well as the field of intervention that corresponds to the geographical territory covered by the entity. An entity’s territory can be composed of one or several regions in which the entity’s activities are conducted. That said, the top managers’ activities can take place in an office or building that belongs to the entity, but they can also take place on the street, at a customer’s site, etc. The digital work space comes on top of the physical space and allows executives to move beyond the boundaries and limits of the physical space. It also simplifies information flow; the managers of the network’s entities are more supported in their work as these units are large in size and can be scattered in several sites, or even several regions. Such a digital space, deployed to support the work of the employees, is composed of technical infrastructure (hardware, software, and, we might add, the network) (Williams and Schubert, 2018). While the material aspect of the infrastructure can be viewed as part of the physical work space, we chose to focus on the information dimension, and therefore on the software aspect of these top managers’ digital work spaces.
Once the collected data were analysed, we identified a set of seventy-seven sense-making situations. Each situation was linked to a precise context that was specific to a moment in time and space (Dervin, 1983) and was imbued with the company’s culture, its values, its organization and procedures. The analysis allowed us to identify four categories of situations: cross-functional transversal work situations, situations related to the coordination of business activities, emergency or crisis situations, and change management situations (Table 2).
|Category of situations||Situation topics||No. of situations |
|Cross-functional work situations||Responding to a request or solicitation|
Communicating or sharing information
Taking on responsibilities
Consulting a piece of information
Managing and processing information
Collecting and acquiring information
|Situations related to the coordination|
of business activities
|Going on a field visit |
Analysing the activity indicators
Ensuring or monitoring that operations are processed
Granting access to information
Granting access to the field
Guaranteeing the quality of business-related data
Supervising work quality
|Emergency or crisis situations||Managing an urgent project|
Managing crises due to work conditions
|Change management situations||Driving the digital transformation|
Coordinating organizational change
Reorganizing work processes and procedures
Developing the evolution of customer service
|Total situations: 77|
The category termed cross-functional work situations included situations ranging from support activities to operational business activities. The situations in this category were not specific to the business area and were considered transversal. Conversely, the activities included in the second category, coordination of business activities, were directly tied to operations, to following up and managing business matters on a daily basis. Emergency or crisis situations refer to situations that presented high stakes for the entity or the company. A certain number of people were needed to handle such crises and they were dealt with swiftly. The last category, change management situations, refers to projects in which major changes needed to take place within the entity. These changes could pertain to organizational matters, to internal procedures and processes, to digital transformations or to the range of services. The results we obtained showed that the situations linked to the coordination of business activities were predominant (41%) and that they coincided with the participants’ main responsibilities.
These sense-making situations also shed light on several constraints that had an impact on the information needs of top managers and on their ability to meet these needs. The manager’s constraints were linked to the following dimensions: information management, internal operations, technology, the human factor, the entity’s structure or size, time, the regulatory and legal framework, safety, and business. A total of 97 constraints were identified out of the 77 situations, but we noticed that certain situations were comprised of several constraints. Most of the time, this population’s information behaviour was conditioned by information management procedures, by internal operations in which the organization of work was involved, and by the technologies in use (Table 3).
|Dimension of the constraint||Examples of constraints||Number of situations|
|Constraint||Information management||Amount of information to handle; reliability and relevance of the information; incompleteness of the information; lack of a knowledge base||24|
|Internal operations (work organization and procedures)||Misdirected request; lack of knowledge of the crisis procedure; complexity of access rights management; nomadism.||16|
|Technology||Tools that are incompatible with business needs; network problems; number of applications; is complexity; lack of storage space; heterogeneity of information formats||16|
|Human factor||Inability to understand the benefits of the digital report; resistance to change; non-compliance with procedure; discomfort or isolation||8|
|Structure or size of the entity||High number of collaborators; wide field and very diverse activities; distances||5|
|Time||Needing to make decisions quickly; prioritising emergencies in the area of operations||7|
|Regulatory and legal framework||The information is unavailable for regulatory reasons; bringing the tool to compliance||3|
|Information security||Restricted access to the is; data confidentiality and sensitivity||6|
|Business-related constraint||Specificities of each intervention; difficult terrain; adverse weather conditions||13|
Chowdhury and Sarkhel (2008) pointed out that constraints, or ‘barriers’, are involved in the processes of sense-making. They are perceived as an impediment to the managers’ information activity and influence their ability to attain set results. Badescu and Garcés-Ayerbe (2009) drew attention to the fact that digital technologies only improve the company’s performance when they are paired with changes in work organization. These changes must include the employees’ adoption of good information management practices.
The results of our study pointed to the constraints that top managers of telecommunications network encountered when they sought to answer their information needs. These constraints should be taken into account when considering the evolution of work organization, of information systems, of the mechanisms underpinning the management and governance of information (internal policies, for example). The changes introduced by digital transformations could therefore be overseen, and efficient solutions could be implemented to support the work of top managers.
Desired outcome and information need
The information behaviour of these top managers is steered by set goals. Their behaviour is instrumental in allowing them to reach the objectives set for a given situation. When presenting situations, the executives highlighted the following goals: staying informed, responding to emergencies and crises, optimising business activities, coordinating projects, solving a problem, ensuring safety, sense-making and sense-giving. To achieve these goals, top managers needed information to sustain their ideas and to help them make decisions.
The information needs of top managers arise from the context of daily work situations. They appear as a form of discontinuity, a lack of meaning in a given situation which prevents the leader from performing a task and achieving a desired objective. Dervin (1983) attributed such discontinuity to the unstable and changing state of human reality. Leaders are in need of relevant, reliable and complete information to act: to make decisions, to solve problems, to define strategies and to attend to the daily activities of their entity.
Based on the collected data, eight types of information required by the top managers were identified: general information and feedback, business or technical information, governance and management information, strategic information, institutional information, contractual and legal information, security information, and commercial information. Table 4 provides a few examples for each type of information, as well as the number of situations in which these examples were identified. It should be noted that this is not an exhaustive list. Other types of information to which the top managers did not allude may exist.
|Type of information||Examples||Number of situations|
|General information and feedback||E-mail, general documentation, discussions with collaborators, contact information of the client’s safety officer, weather forecasts, basic facts, etc.||25|
|Business-related or technical information||Data, descriptive information on the network and on the business (network maps, work orders, network configuration, state of the network, images, comments, skill codes, etc.).||21|
|Governance and management information||Procedures and descriptions of internal processes, project rules and sequencing, inventory management methods, action plans, field-access authorisations, policies, regulations, etc.||18|
|Strategic information||Performance indicators, analysis, roadmaps, business projections, coordination elements, etc.||17|
|Institutional information||News, information on work conditions, official information (regarding internal mechanisms).||8|
|Contractual and legal information||Liability documents (related to safety, data protection, etc.), prevention plans, elements from the archives (such as a road permit).||5|
|Security information||Safety conditions, safety procedures, right to communicate.||3|
|Commercial information||Information on the company’s offers and services.||2|
Once the situations were analysed, the results revealed that, for the most part, leaders resorted to general information and feedback, to business and technical information, to governance or management information and, lastly, to strategic information. Through feedback in particular, managers could access information shared by their collaborators regarding projects, organizational changes and decisions; such feedback allowed them to understand the impacts on their collaborators’ activities and work. The project or the decision could therefore be developed while the opinions and experiences of those involved were taken into account to improve upon the elements that had not worked.
The three other categories were necessary for top managers to carry out their responsibilities, to plan and conduct the managed entity’s activities. Business-related or technical information refers to the pieces of information that are prescribed to execute production and maintenance activities on the telecommunications network. These can be technical data describing the network, business documents, knowledge-based information and documents (guides, instructions, description of processes, etc.). The governance and management information category includes internal mechanisms which underpin the overall framework of the business. This information supports activities and consists of procedures, process descriptions, methods and other tools (policies, rules, directives, recommendations, regulations, etc.). Strategic information is mainly composed of information that can help top managers define their strategy and achieve defined objectives. These four categories were followed (in decreasing order) by institutional information, contractual or legal information, safety and commercial information, all of which were featured less often in the situations described by the participants of the study.
In their literature review on the information behaviour of engineers, Leckie, Pettigrew and Sylvain (1996) noticed that this population’s information needs were greater than the information they produced. The needs of engineers vary according to their career levels. As senior engineers assume managerial roles, their information sources are both internal and external, in areas as diverse as regulations, technologies, business and economics, or staff files. In a study on the types of information used by Singaporean managers, De Alwis (2001) presented similar results. These managers considered the following information to be important: information related to business, to political and social issues, to suppliers, to regulations, to the use of information technology, and to new management methods. Our results corroborated these works and completed these findings with new types of information (relating to security, for example) for senior engineers occupying leadership positions in a particular business sector.
The work roles and tasks of top managers
These top managers find information that may be useful to them when carrying out professional tasks and duties, and their information needs are influenced by their roles in the entity. We refer here to the work roles defined by Wilson as ‘the set of activities, responsibilities etc. of an individual, usually in some organizational setting’ (Wilson, 2006, p. 665).
Moreover, the results show that their emotional states, their experiences, preferences and knowledge are all important as they contribute to the sense-making process. In his 1981 model, Wilson (2006) included the personal characteristics of the individuals under study: their psychological, emotional and cognitive states. The author suggested that these individuals all had sets of diverse needs, all of which led them to search for information. In the following example, a top manager explains the importance of experience to know how to prioritise requests and solicitations, to identify and process relevant information.
But when you do not have much experience, you do not know what is important or what is not important about what lands in your inbox. So, is it normal for me to receive it or is it not normal? Should I process this urgently or not urgently? And then, these e-mails there, what do I do with them? Is there a need to destroy or not to destroy? (Interview 1, intervention unit top manager).
The network top manager’s roles include: being a decision-maker, a manager and organizer, a transformer, an analyst, a sense-maker and sense-giver, a monitor and disseminator, and the head of the information security system within the entity. In the example below, a top manager from the intervention unit gives a summary of his roles and responsibilities:
So my job is to build the organization, to develop the organizational systems, the resources, to make strategic decisions, to discuss with partners, to exchange with our partners, our subcontractors, to meet our operational objectives. And I have a second role, which really is the role of transformation since we are also preparing for tomorrow’s units. (Interview 4, intervention unit top manager).
The influence of roles and tasks can also be found in the work of Leckie, Pettigrew and Sylvain (1996) on the information behaviour of professionals and, among them, of engineers. However, since our results are based on the information behaviour of senior engineers occupying high-responsibility management positions, these individuals must possess managerial skills as well as knowledge pertaining to their particular field’s business and techniques. Due to this population’s specificity, the model designed by Leckie, Pettigrew and Sylvain cannot be applied on its own; it must be enhanced to include the work characteristics of these managers with regard to the particularities of their work environments and their information needs and roles (Mintzberg, 2006).
Top managers seek information to make sense of their environment, to fill gaps and to achieve their set objectives. Such a search implies looking for sources of information that are available and that they view as being potentially helpful. The added value of this process derives from the meaning that is built on the basis of the acquired information. Conversely, top managers viewed the time spent searching for and processing masses of information as a waste of time. In fact, time represents a factor of paramount importance. Apart from time, the strategies that top managers employed to search for information and to use digital technologies were determined by their needs and by the context of each situation.
Top managers find the information they need in different ways. One option is to look into the available sources; they can also ask individuals who have access to these sources. Since telecom network managers do not work alone, they can turn to their collaborators. As a general rule, one of them often possesses the needed information:
because one of them always ends up receiving the document, we can ask if we cannot find it anymore, so we always manage to find the document we are looking for. (Interview 3, intervention unit top manager).
Top managers are committed to staying close to their teams. They are in need of direct feedback, which generally takes the shape of informal exchanges with collaborators. Thanks to this strategy, information can be collected and acquired from the people who have it without needing to go through line management. Top managers also turn to their collaborators when more precise expertise is needed (e.g., for a particular activity, a process, etc.). They rely on their own experience or that of their collaborators and colleagues to solve new problems. Reliable strategies consist in encouraging mutual aid and searching for information alongside people with similar issues. Time can also be saved by sharing information, knowledge and experience.
Information can either emerge out of the constant monitoring of a topic, or it can be automatically reported by collaborators (e.g., in the case of a major problem, the top managers are alerted by their teams). In the excerpt below, the top manager refers to the instances and committees that govern the entity. These durable frameworks allow these executives to obtain strategic information. Such information is critically important to organize and plan activities, to build a strategy, to make decisions.
In terms of information, we have set up instances, whether it is the executive committee, the business committees or the performance committees, we churn a certain amount of information there too. My collaborators are the ones who present this information to me and they explain that, here, this does not work. (Interview 2, intervention unit top manager).
Apart from digital sources, business archives, the collaborators themselves and the internal or external structures and institutions, another important source of information for leaders is the field itself. This specificity is tied to the industry’s core business since most of the activities take place on the field of intervention. The latter is a major benchmark and a reliable source of information; it illustrates the realities of the telecommunications network and of its infrastructure. When the information systems’ digital data is incoherent or incomplete, top managers turn to the field, and to the collaborators close to it, to search for precise information.
In their work, Leckie, Pettigrew and Sylvain (1996) concluded that the result of an information search could be ‘optimal’, meaning that the individual had acquired the necessary information to complete their task. However, such a need is not always met, in which case the individual must keep on searching for the information. Our research shows that top managers could decide to stop searching. When a search took too much time and did not lead to satisfactory results, leaders sometimes chose to end their quest. They pursued their task for the company by exploring ideas that were ‘tainted with some information gaps’ (Interview 14, intervention unit top manager). In this regard, Dervin (2008, p. 17) stated that the construction of an ‘information bridge’ (Savolainen, 2006) was based on multiple elements such as experience, ideas, beliefs. In the case of a non-optimal search, the leaders continue to work, while solely relying on the elements they already have.
Top managers noticed another issue tied to information seeking: identifying relevant and reliable information proved more difficult and time-consuming when the information was improperly managed or in cases of information overload. The respondents reiterated their views on this phenomenon, itself comprised of many different facets. The first one, which is probably the most problematic, is linked to the multiplication of information mechanisms (sources of information, databases, etc.). Many application layers are added to the information system as it develops over time.
Tons and tons of apps and tools; just for the optical fibre, there are four or five different tools, but none of them give you an overall vision of where you stand, of your results. (Interview 13, intervention unit top manager).
One facet of information overload is linked to the evolution of the information behaviour of employees and their uses of digital devices. The disproportionate use of the digital inbox when sharing daily information has led to the excessive growth of e-mails, thus contributing to feeling overwhelmed. Similarly, the heterogeneous behaviour towards information sharing and the conjugation of several digital platforms (e.g., collaboration platforms, and the company’s social network) have led to the dispersal and multiplication of tools. As top managers are faced with a constant mass of information to process, negative emotions can emerge. Many collaborators also felt invaded by the extent of digital information.
In his research, Junghans (2016) noticed that information systems in companies were not fully efficient. He drew attention to information overload among executives. A lack of information at such a high decision-making level can lead to mistakes or wasted opportunities, resulting in the failure to achieve a given objective.
According to the sense-making methodology, searching for and using information are presented as constructive activities that form part of the sense-making process (Dervin, 1983). Sharing is a form of information use. It is comprised of two aspects, giving and receiving information,; and it entails information that has already been acquired (Savolainen, 2017; Talja and Hansen, 2006). This is how we chose to examine and include information sharing in our model. In the previous section, we referred to sharing as a form of mutual aid whereby the shared information, experiences and knowledge enables top managers to build meaning and solve a problem.
Top managers share information through oral and written means, with stationary or mobile devices and through a range of applications (collaborative applications, e-mail, intranet, instant messaging, file transfer systems). Sharing can take various shapes depending on the number of people involved in the process, on the needs and on the context of the situation. Information can therefore be shared with one or several individuals, or even with all members of a community. With peer-to-peer sharing, the top manager only disseminates the information to one individual who can, in turn, share it with several other people. This individual is appointed as the person in charge of the shared information or of the task related to it. They are required to provide feedback to the top manager and to give the expected information. In this case, the sharing is a reciprocal action between both individuals.
I generally try to make sure that there is a representative. So normally this representative gives me feedback. Even if he wants to work with 3 others or 5 other people. (Interview 2, intervention unit top manager).
Thanks to the availability of digital tools, discussions are fostered, and executives can manage their time more effectively; they can also solve problems collaboratively regardless of physical distances (breaking away from spatial constraints). Digital tools also allow individuals to share information with a larger group of people within a community, at the level of the unit or more broadly. Community-based sharing is another form of sharing. It can take place between people who are at different hierarchical levels: vertically (e.g., the members of a team composed of managers and employees) or horizontally (e.g., between executives).
Information can be shared on a regular basis or as needed. An example of community sharing consists of sharing the news of the entity to a wider audience in an effort to inform and record the events that have happened during the week. Information sharing inside the communities mostly takes place through the company’s collaborative devices (such as the company’s social network). In addition to these tools, information can be shared among several individuals via instant messaging such as WhatsApp. Executives explained these usages as a need to exchange ‘a little more directly with your colleague or a community’ (Interview 12, intervention unit top manager).
Sharing can be perceived as help in the sense-making situation, as postulated by Dervin (1983). Conversely, the results of our study also included non-sharing situations. Non-sharing derived from the respect of security requirements and information confidentiality, another issue that top managers must consider in their work.
This model highlights the fundamental importance of information security in the space-time of top managers in the telecom network. As a major factor, it imposes itself on daily work and it regulates the information behaviour of individuals.
One type of information risk perceived by top managers is related to the traceability of information and its secure conservation. One executive explained that traces and records of deeds and words needed to be maintained when performing tasks, when defining business ventures or issues, and when making decisions.
One of the big problems is that, sometimes, you have to redo the stories. And if you have not kept the history of exchanges or the traces of so-and-so situations, you quickly find yourself entangled in a lack of data, in a lack of information to qualify the file. (Interview 14, intervention unit top manager).
These needs must therefore be considered in the context of risk management by implementing measures that can prevent information loss due to technical problems or to poor management. Regarding this issue, one of the telecom executives highlighted the importance of stable and secure technologies to conserve digital data more permanently.
Information security is a central issue due to its strict requirements and regulations, and to the sensitivity of the information handled in the domain of the network on a daily basis (e.g., technical information, client information, etc.). All members of the company must comply with information security measures; this includes the top managers, as they are required to respect those measures in their daily activities. Furthermore, the top manager’s role includes being responsible for information security; a task bolstered by the urgent need to manage an increasing number of information risks. When they assume this role, top managers are to guarantee the safety of the information within their entity: they must ensure that the measures adopted by the company are respected and that their collaborators fall in line with these measures. All employees, including top managers, are asked to be particularly vigilant when using digital devices, when processing and using information and data, and when sharing it. We can therefore consider that managing information security is a part of the top managers’ information roles (as monitor, information disseminator and spokesman) as presented by Mintzberg (2006) in his categorisation. Other authors (such as Kaur, 2016; Berthevas, 2013; Williams, 2007) have also highlighted this key role for top managers of activity sectors.
Information security management implies controlling access to the information system and reserving it to authorised persons, all under satisfactory safety conditions. This requires top managers to alter their behaviour and to adjust work organization for it to harmonise with the required safety conditions. Top managers mentioned that some pieces of information could only be accessed and viewed through public key infrastructure solutions. These are equipped with an information system user authentication service, electronic signature and data encryption. Due to some information only being available under predetermined safety conditions, the involved parties must modify their practices and the way they organize their activities, as well as those of their collaborators. Information security is therefore perceived as a constraint (functional, organizational or technical) in certain situations.
Thanks to these observations, we can see that these security requirements have a direct impact on the information behaviour of top managers. Gruselle (2013) highlighted the contradiction between the companies’ ambitions to stimulate exchanges and collaboration through digital devices, and their security requirements.
In the face of numerous information risks and internal and external safety requirements, telecom network top managers recognised the need to integrate safety routines as part of the information behaviour of each employee, themselves included. Since top managers and their collaborators are primarily focused on operational activities, they are not always immediately aware of the information security risks inherent to their work situations. Therefore, top managers have emphasised the need for ongoing support and training, in addition to technical, procedural and organizational security measures.
We chose the qualitative empirical approach for our research and therefore conducted twenty-two interviews with senior executives from a telecommunications network. These top managers were at the head of entities known as intervention units and network control units. They oversaw between 300 to 2000 collaborators. These units represent the core business of the company and have undergone many changes linked to new digital technologies. This explains why we chose these particular entities to study information behaviour in the context of the digital transformation of the organization, focusing on the highest strategic level, that of their leaders.
Our methodological approach was built using two constructivist methodologies: sense-making (Dervin, 2008) and grounded theory (Guillemette and Luckerhoff, 2012). Through our study, we aimed to understand the information behaviour of top managers, to understand the impact of digital technologies on their information activity and to examine the factors that conditioned their practices in work situations.
The data, which we studied through the lens of Dervin’s sense-making metaphor, allowed us to model the information behaviour of this group of individuals. The model highlights how top managers are given a wider space for action (the digital space is added on to the physical space) and how information security has imposed itself as a fundamental factor in this population’s practices. Moreover, the model shows that the information behaviour of these professionals is determined by their personalities, their professional roles and tasks, the culture and values of the company, and, lastly, a variety of situational constraints.
Information needs are tied to the context of each situation and to the final goals that lead managers to seek information. The sense-making situations relating to the coordination of business activities dominate the work of top managers; therefore, they tend to favour general information and feedback, operational and technical information, governance or management information and strategic information. Lastly, our results highlight the diverse strategies that the top managers used to seek and share information, thus creating a form of help in the sense-making process that allowed them to solve challenges in various situations.
This research has aimed to shed light on the information behaviour of top managers and the challenges they face in their daily work. These findings could be used towards the development of information management policies, of information and security governance tools in companies and to support individuals in their digital usages. Our results confirm the need to conduct an in-depth analysis of information behaviour in companies and to take it into account when creating digital transformation projects, all in an effort to benefit from the opportunities such a transformation provides. These projects need to be implemented as a way to support the information behaviour of top managers, thus also contributing to their operational activities.
In upcoming research, we would like to further study information use among this population. Our work could also develop by exploring the information behaviour of top managers in other sectors, using the suggested model. This would allow us to test and to improve our model and to assess its generalizability.
This work was supported by Orange, a French telecommunications services provider. The authors thank all respondents who participated in the study, as well as the reviewers and editors for their constructive suggestions which helped to improve this paper.
About the authors
Dijana Lekic, PhD, is an Adjunct Lecturer ('Temporary Attaché for Teaching and Research') in the Department of Information Sciences at University of Paris 8. Her research focuses on information behaviour in the context of the digital transformation of organizations, strategic information management, and information risk and security. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Anna Lezon Rivière is Associate Professor in the Department of Information Sciences at University of Paris 8. Her research focuses on information behaviour, strategic information management, sensemaking, and the uses of social networks. She can be contacted at email@example.com. Madjid Ihadjadene is Full Professor in the Department of Information Sciences at University of Paris 8. His research focuses on information behaviour and the use of information and communication technology. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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