“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.