Towards an information
Professor Tom Wilson
Department of Information Studies
University of Sheffield, U.K.
Reviews the emergence of the idea of information management, shows how the subject is developing through its own specialized literature and points to the consequences for curriculum development. The curriculum of the MSc in Information Management at Sheffield and the place of the subject in the MBA programme of the School of Management are reviewed. Finally, possible future developments are outlined.
Introduction: the development of the idea of information management.
The term information management is relatively new: its origins lie not in the traditional world of libraries, nor even in the less traditional world of information science, but in the world of the management of paper in the US Federal Government. In 1978, the US Government introduced a proposal to control government paperwork in its Education Amendments Bill, 1978, HR15. The proposals were met with scepticism and even unveiled hostility at the time (see, for example, Hoos(1)) and a former economic analyst at the Library of Congress, T. Harrell Allen, drew upon information theory in making his riposte:
'This proposed agency simply cannot be appropriate to its task of coping with information
overload. But instead of recognizing this it generates more control mechanisms into the
system in order to try to match the proliferating information. But the natural law at work
here that dooms this effort is that variety (information) grows exponentially while control
Appropriate or not, the force of arguments about the extent to which US companies spent money simply to fill in Federal forms, held sway, and the 'Paperwork Reduction Act'(3) became law. Marc Porat(4) gave examples of the scale of costs involved:
'...the State of Maryland refused to accept a $60.000 grant from HEW [U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare] for a consumer education program because the cost of completing the necessary forms would chew up about $45,000.';
'An oil company spent $17 million and used 475 full-time workers to file government reports
other than taxes.'
Facts which make the passing of the Act understandable!
It is a little curious, paradoxical even, that a measure designed to reduce the amount of information which the Federal Government needed to process formed the basis of the idea that information has value and ought to be organized like other organizational resources. However,
the examination of the production of information for the US government brought about a realization that information production, storage, retrieval, processing, and dissemination, involved costs to the organization concerned. These costs had been hidden because, for the most part, those involved were not designated 'information workers' but engineers, planners, managers, and so forth. The jobs of these persons were all centrally concerned with something other than information, at least so far as the organization was concerned - they were involved in project development and control, in economic forecasting and planning, in the general management of the enterprise. It became apparent, however, that on closer inspection, the handling and communication of information was central to the performance of those tasks.
At about the same time as the true costs of handling information were being discovered, information technology was beginning to influence the way organizations performed that task. Office automation was in its infancy and computer scientists were discovering, through the introduction of microcomputers in user departments, that the old ways of creating management information were no longer satisfactory (if indeed they ever had been; see Lucas(5)). This led to a dramatic increase in awareness of the costs of information handling, because the task was now associated with the purchase of equipment out of the capital budget, rather than with the purchase of forms and paper out of the operating budget.
Information management, as a concept was the end-product of these two developments and can be defined as:
the effective management of the information resources ( internal and external ) of an
organization through the proper application of information technology.
The two elements joined in that definition, 'information' and 'technology' are inseparable today, although much information processing will still involve the use of paper rather than the use of machines. I do take issue, however, with those who consider the technology to be the 'information resource'. For example, Synott(6) makes a statement which is almost unintelligible to an information scientist (even allowing for the jargon):
'Information resource management is the process of architecting and managing the technological infrastructure of the firm. It deals with information conduit, which is a technical issue. One addresses information conduit with hardware (computers, communications networks, office systems).'
Synott proposes this in contrast to his definition of information management as dealing with information content: a problem which requires the use of software. However, his 'information resource management', is what others call, more appropriately, 'IT management'. My definition, given above, includes both the information and the technology for managing it.
Information management, librarianship and information science.
Perhaps understandably, the educational sector of the library and information field has been quick to seize upon the idea of information management. It has not been alone in this: a brief review by Anderton(7) in 1986 gave information on courses being offered under the title of information management, or with planned development into that area, in the Department of Systems at Lancaster University, the Royal Military College of Science, the Department of Information Studies at the University of Sheffield, the Department of Information Science, Strathclyde University, the Management Centre, Aston University, Portsmouth Polytechnic, and Sheffield City Polytechnic.
It is not always clear, however, whether even the schools and departments of librarianship and information studies are talking about the same thing when they use the term information management. It is even less clear when the courses of other departments are looked at.
What then are the relationships between information science, librarianship and information management? A librarian might legitimately argue that the profession has always been concerned with the management of information resources. It would be more difficult, however, to argue that the management involved has always had a sound economic basis. It would also be difficult to prove that the management of these resources has had a beneficial effect upon society, the academic institution, the business firm, or the other organizations in which the librarian has been employed - whatever -the professional belief may be.
Similarly, the information scientist (whether s/he or is a very different animal from the special librarian is still unclear) may argue that the management of internal organizational resources such as research reports, central registry, laboratory notebooks, etc., has always been a feature of his or her work.
Both might argue that they have been involved with the use of information technology for many years before the personal computer began to make its impact in the world of business and commerce.
All of these arguments may be supportable, and may reflect the truth of the situation but this is still some way from claiming an identity between these fields of practice and what is now called information management. Clearly, there are contributions from the fields of librarianship and information science which have been and which ought to be made to information management. Just a moment's thought will be sufficient to identify these: the librarian/information scientist is likely to be more aware of the following kinds of issues (based on Wilson(8)) than others, because of the specialized training s/he has received and because of the nature of the work:
information needs: the librarian/information scientist ought to be more aware of the need to consider the needs of the information user in the design of systems. Certainly, we have probably been responsible for more research studies in this area than any other contributors to information management. This may be a short-term position, however, as the determination of needs becomes an accepted part of the curriculum in computer science and in the reality of systems design;
data and document record formats: libraries have been in the vanguard of the computerization of databases (although they are usually called catalogues) and this has resulted in a great deal of expertise in the design of record formats and a greater awareness than usual of the problems of complex records with free-field and textual data. Again, these ideas are now represented in other curricula, particularly in computer science;
vocabulary control in databases: virtually no other profession has the same kind of experience as librarianship and information science, from Dewey to the present day;
external information resources: while the records manager may have more experience of the handling of internal records, and 'the computer manager may have more experience of the handling of data, there is no competitor to the librarian or information scientist in this field. How far the use of online databases by the end-user may generalize this specialized knowledge is open to question, however;
general IT awareness: the incorporation of information technology into the curricula of departments of library and information studies has resulted in graduates with a very broad IT awareness.
Acknowledging these possible contributions to the information management syllabus, however, is not to say that they constitute the whole of that syllabus. As I shall show in the following section, there is more to Information management than librarianship or information science.
The emerging content of information management.
Given its origins, and the competing forces laying claim to its territory, it is not surprising that what constitutes information management is open to debate. However, an analysis of papers in the three leading journals in the field (Information Management Review, International Journal of Information Management, and MIS Quarterly) suggests the classification of the field of information management shown in Table 1:
- Application areas
- health services
- Artificial intelligence
- expert systems
- knowledge-based systems
- Economics of information
- cost-benefit analysis
- fee-based services
- information & productivity
- information economy
- value-added processes
- Education for information management
- Information management
- aiding business strategy
- chief information officers
- computer-based records management
- corporate information resources
- information mapping
- information resource management
- manpower aspects
- online information systems
- organizational aspects
- strategic monitoring
- Information policy
- national information policies.
- Information use and users
- end-user computing
- information needs
- Systems theory
- Information systems
- database systems
- decision support systems
- legal aspects
- management information systems
- organizational impact
- project management
- user involvement
- Information technology
- management aspects
- competitive advantage
- computer-disaster strategies
- decisions on choices
- economic implications
- information centres
- legal implications
- marketing and sales potential
- office automation
- transborder data flow
- technology aspects
- electronic publishing
- laser optics
- office automation
- optical character recognition
- personal computers
- telecommunications and IT
Even at this stage of his thinking about the subject it was surprising to this author how quickly the categories emerged and what little resemblance they showed to the traditional concerns even of information science. From our perspective there are topics we would wish to add, but given the literature of the field, can we call them central to information management?
Towards a curriculum at Sheffield.
The MSc in Information Management at Sheffield emerged gradually out of the MSc in Information Studies (Social Sciences) programme. The latter course was started in 1972/73 as a response to a perceived shortage of graduates with social science and law backgrounds entering the information profession. Almost immediately the graduates of the course found ready places in what is now called 'the emerging market' and that tendency increased over the years.
As the times changed, so did the information Studies programme: the curriculum changed gradually as developments took place in the outside environment, and was radically re-organized in 1981 along with the other programmes in the Department. There were further evolutionary developments in the next five-year curriculum review in 1986, by which time individual courses in information management and organizational information resources had been introduced. In 1986/7 the process of revision was taken further and the title MSc in Information Management was adopted in time for the start of the academic year 1988/89. This latest change coincided with a change in Faculty location for the Department when in moved from the Faculty of Educational Studies to membership of both the Faculty of Pure Science and the Faculty of Social Science.
The course now offered has much in common with the other programmes in the Department, but also some differences which identify it as information management. The first term has five courses, three of which continue into the second term:
- Information systems 1: concerned mainly with study of the Checkland soft systems methodology and SSADM;
- Information storage and retrieval: common to all programmes in the Department;
- Computers and information: common to all programmes;
- Information management – 1: consisting of the common first term management course;
- Information services: formal and informal communication, information sources, searching and services - manual and computerized.
The second term includes the three courses continued from the first term:
- Information systems II: a continuation of SSADM and a comparison of system design methodologies;
- Computers and information: DBMS systems; free text retrieval systems; editing systems including desk-top publishing, database creation, videotex, office automation;
- Information management II: part lecture and part visiting specialists from many different fields.
Students must also choose two electives from a list which is largely common to all three programmes. Naturally, students are advised which of these are likely to be most appropriate to a career in information management. The following are likely to be most popular:
- Business information
- Computational information retrieval
- Data bases systems: means and applications
- Knowledge processing
- Text retrieval systems
It will be seen that the course marries the emerging content of information management, as shown in the preceding section, and courses from, chiefly, the information science programmes.
In common with all programmes in the Department all students on the MSc in Information Management complete a dissertation during the summer. Most studies will be undertaken in association with outside organizations, and part of the student's training involves identifying and gaining entry to such organizations.
This structure is in its first year of implementation and it is rather too early to suggest lines of development - much depends on the ability to attract not only students, but studentships, and while the programme is supported by the Training Agency for at least one more year, that support is always subject to the changing winds of politics. Much also depends upon our ability to retain teaching staff with skills which could command much higher rewards in business and industry.
In common with other programmes in the Department the MSc in Information Management will be subject to regular review and revision, but there is another development which is likely to influence the programme. This is the existence in the MBA programme of the School of Management and Economic Studies of an option in Information Management.
Information management in the MBA programme.
The MBA programme at Sheffield is a very strong one which the University has identified as a growth area. As a result of review by the Academic Development Committee our two departments were urged to discuss collaboration, and out of this came the information management option.
The structure of the MBA is particularly appropriate to collaboration: students follow a common first semester of 13 weeks:
- Organizational behaviour
- Business economics
- Operational research and operations management
- Accounting and financial management
- Marketing management
- Business statistics
- Business policy
In the second semester a choice is offered of specialization in:
- General management
- Financial management
- Marketing management
- Information management, or
- Recreational and leisure management
in all of these the course on Business policy continues and in the information management option there are two other required courses:
- Computers and information, and
- Information management,
and a choice of two courses from:
- Information technology & management, offered by the School of Management;
- Information systems II
- Business information
- Knowledge processing, and
- Organizational information resources.
To the best of our knowledge, this kind of collaboration within an MBA programme is unique to Sheffield.
The information Management option was intended to be offered from the 1988/89 academic year but, exceptionally, two students from the School of Management are following the option this year. We envisage an intake of twelve in 1988/89 and will hope to expand beyond that in future years.
The existence of the MBA option is likely to have an influence on the future development of the MSc in Information Management, and the possibility exists of courses within the Department being offered to other MBA options. As the nature of information management becomes better defined, so it may prove desirable to include required courses from the MBA in the MSc. Even now the relevance of, for example. Accounting and financial management, and Business policy, is pretty obvious. My personal belief is that the mutual attraction between the two programmes is bound to continue.
[An update, 2001: Unfortunately, my belief that the MBA option would continue to thrive proved too true and an incoming head of the MBA programme decided that it was attracting to many students away from what he considered to be the true business-related options and, made a unilateral decision to close the option. A curious decision, since the programme was actually recruiting students who specifically wished to take the option.]
Towards a future professional?
I have argued elsewhere(9) that the concept of information management provides a basis for the creation of a new information specialist. My proposition was simple and unexceptionable: the information management concept is applicable not only to business and industry, but also to public sector and voluntary agencies, and to public and academic libraries. This is not to say that the term Information Manager should replace such hallowed terms as Librarian and Archivist, or even less hallowed but tenaciously defended terms such as Records Manager and Information Scientist, but that an Information Manager could be employed in organizations which also employ Librarians, Archivists, and Information Scientists.
In the light of developments since I wrote that paper, I would now argue that the idea of information management has become accepted to such a degree that Librarians, Record Managers, and Information Scientists, may need to become Information Managers if they are to have their deserved impact upon the organizations they serve to a greater extent than in the past.
Will a new profession emerge, however? I doubt it. The idea of professions appears to be less acceptable today: in many areas of activity the present UK government's policy has been to open up professional enclaves to the heady spirits of competition. That movement is likely to continue, aided in many areas by the impact of information technology. (If I can do my accounts with a PC package, why do I need a professional accountant?) This sociological phenomenon alone would be enough to prevent the emergence of a new profession, and the very diversity of people, backgrounds, training, and organizational interpretations of the concept are also likely to prevent it.
'Information management' is not just a buzz-word: it has been accepted too rapidly at least in the academic area - Norman Roberts and I have pointed out elsewhere that its acceptance in manufacturing industry shows little sign of happening(10). However, its likely persistence and ultimate extension to industry as a whole necessitates new curricula in schools and departments of information studies to lauch the information professional into new roles, responsibilities and rewards. Those curricula are likely to be diverse but, as with information science and librarianship, are likely to possess a common core.
With effective training the information manager can be expected to function in a professional manner, i.e., fully motivated, up-to-date, effective in performance, and so on. While interest groups may form, and societies such as the Society for Information Management may flourish, however, it is unlikely that a new 'profession' will emerge. That, too, has its educational implications: there is something very secure about preparing people for an established profession - they have an inherently conservative character which encourages stability in educational programmes. Preparing people to perform a management function in circumstances of rapidly changing technology, organization, and socio-economic forces is much more exciting - and conservative at its peril.
There is an idea prevalent in some circles today, but which rarely gets rational expression in the literature, that innovation in educational programmes must be revolutionary: that new ideas and new pressures from changes in technology or other environmental factors demand new programmes. The idea is nonsense, of course: educational courses change continually, both in anticipation of various environmental changes and in response to them. Those outside educational institutions see little of this and assume that if the course titles stay the same, so must the content. The development of information management at Sheffield shows how educational programmes develop in reality, and how, in the distinctly unfavourable circumstances of the past ten years, there is sufficient imagination, energy, and determination, to make new beginnings.
- I. R. Hoos 'Paperwork control.' Society, 16 (1), (1978) 5-8.
- T.H. Allen 'Capturing the paper tiger.' Society, 16 (1), (1978) 14-16.
- U.S. Public law 96-511. (1980) [Paperwork reduction act.]
- M.U. Porat 'The public bureaucracies', in: Information management in public administration, edited by F.W. Horton and D.A. Marchand. Arlington, VA: Information Resources Press, 1982. pp. 16-27.
- H.C. Lucas Why information systems fail. New York, NY: Columbia U.P., 1975.
- W.R. Synott The information weapon: winning customers and markets with technology. New York, NY: Wiley, 1987.
- R. Anderton 'Short reports [on curriculum development for information management] . ' International Journal of Information Management, 4, (1986) 247-258.
- T.D. Wilson Office automation and information services: final report on a study of current developments. London: British Library, (1985) (Library and information Research Report 31)
- T.D. Wilson 'Information management: a new focus for integration?' IFLA Journal, 14, (1988) 238-242.
- N. Roberts & T.D. Wilson 'Information resources management: a question of attitudes?' International Journal of Information Management, 7, (1987) 67-76.
Un-refereed draft of a paper ultimately published in Journal of Information Science, 15, (1989) 203-210