Information Politics

“Information is not innocent.”—James March1

During the past decade, many firms have concluded that information is one of their most critical business resources and that broadening information access and usage and enhancing its quality are key to improving business performance. The “information-based organization,” the “knowledge-based enterprise,” and the “learning organization,” forecasted by management experts, all require a free flow of information around the firm.2 The computers and communications networks that manipulate and transmit information become more powerful each year. Yet the rhetoric and technology of information management have far outpaced the ability of people to understand and agree on what information they need and then to share it.

Today, in fact, the information-based organization is largely a fantasy. All of the writers on information-based organizations must speak hypothetically, in the abstract, or in the future tense. Despite forty years of the Information Revolution in business, most managers still tell us that they cannot get the information they need to run their own units or functions. As a recent article by the CEO of a shoe company put it: “On one of my first days on the job, I asked for a copy of every report used in management. The next day, twenty-three of them appeared on my desk. I didn’t understand them. . . . Each area’s reports were greek to the other areas, and all of them were greek to me.”3 A more accurate metaphor might be that these reports each came from a different city-state — Athens, Sparta, Corinth, Thebes, and Peloponnesus — each part of the organization but a separate political domain with its own culture, leaders, and even vocabulary.

We have studied information management approaches in more than twenty-five companies over the past two years. Many of their efforts to create information-based organizations — or even to implement significant information management initiatives — have failed or are on the path to failure. The primary reason is that the companies did not manage the politics of information. Either the initiative was inappropriate for the firm’s overall political culture, or politics were treated as peripheral rather than integral to the initiative. Only when information politics are viewed as a natural aspect of organizational life and consciously managed will true information-based organizations emerge.

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References

1. J.G. March, Decisions and Organizations (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Basil Blackwell, 1988).

2. For example: M.S. Scott Morton, The Corporation of the 1990s: Information Technology and Organizational Transformation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991);

P.G.W. Keen, Shaping the Future: Business Design through Information Technology (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1991); and

D.R. Vincent, The Information-Based Corporation: Stakeholder Economics and the Technology Investment (Homewood, Illinois: Dow Jones-Irwin, 1990).

3. J. Thorbeck, “The Turnaround Value of Values,” Harvard Business Review, January–February 1991, pp. 52–62.

4. J. Pfeffer, Power in Organizations (New York: HarperBusiness, 1986).

5. See articles in W.G. McGowan, ed., Revolution in Real-Time: Managing Information Technology in the 1990s (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1991). A notable exception to the apolitical perspective is found in

M.L. Markus, “Power, Politics, and MIS Implementation,” Communications of the ACM 26:6 (June 1983): 434–444.

6. J.G. March, “The Business Firm as a Political Coalition,” in J.G. March (1988).

7. A term similar to “technocratic utopianism” has been defined, without reference to information management, by Howard P. Segal. See:

H.P. Segal, Technological Utopianism in American Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985).

8. See R.A. Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (New York: Random House, 1975); and

Chinatown, the film.

9. See D.L. Goodhue, J.A. Quillard, and J.F. Rockart, “Managing the Data Resource: A Contingency Perspective,” MIS Quarterly (September 1988), 373–392; and

D.L. Goodhue, L. Kirsch, J.A. Quillard, and M. Wybo, “Strategic Data Planning: Lessons from the Field” (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Sloan School of Management, Center for Information Systems Research, Working Paper No. 215, October 1990).

10. Some interesting examples of feudalism, again largely outside the information management context, are described in:

J. Pfeffer, Managing with Power (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1991).

11. Some of the reasons for these discrepancies are described in:

S.M. McKinnon and W.J. Bruns, Jr., The Information Mosaic (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1992).

12. L.M. Applegate and C.S. Osborn, “Phillips 66 Company: Executive Information System,” 9-189-006 (Boston: Harvard Business School, 1988).

13. B. Burrough and J. Helyar, Barbarians at the Gate (New York: Harper & Row, 1990).

14. See Goodhue et al. (1988) and

Goodhue et al. (1990).

15. “Using Information Strategically: A Road Map for the 90s,” Information and Telecommunications Systems, IBM Corporation, 15 November 1990.

16. McKinnon and Bruns (1992).

17. See the proceedings volume from the Xerox Document Symposium, March 10–11, 1992, Xerox Corporation, Stamford, Connecticut.

18. L. Sproull and S. Kiesler, Connections: New Ways of Working in the Networked Organization (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1991).

19. See J. Linder and D. Stoddard, “Aetna Life & Casualty: Corporate Technology Planning,” 9-187-037 (Boston: Harvard Business School, 1986).

20. J. Gladstone and N. Nohria, “Symantec,” N9-491-010 (Boston: Harvard Business School, 1990, revised 4 February 1991).