A common thread runs through many recent corporate setbacks and scandals. In crises ranging from BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill debacle to the Libor rate-fixing scandal in the City of London, the troubles simmered below the CEO’s radar. By the time the problems were revealed, most of the damage had arguably already been done. Despite indications that large companies are becoming increasingly complicated to manage,1 executives are still responsible for staying abreast of what’s going in their organization. But how do you keep tabs on what your competitors and employees are doing? How do you spot the next big idea and make the best judgments? How do you distinguish usable information from distracting noise? And how do you maintain focus on what’s critical?
Many management experts have assumed that better information systems and more data would solve the problem. Some have pushed for faster and more powerful information technologies. Others have put their faith in better dashboards, big data and social networking. But is better technology or more tools really the most promising way forward? We think not. In this article, we maintain that the capacity of senior executives to remain appropriately and effectively knowledgeable in order to perform their jobs is based on a personal and organizational capability to continually “stay in the know” by assembling and maintaining what we call a “personal knowledge infrastructure.” And while information technologies may be part of this personal knowledge infrastructure, they are really just one of the components.
We are not the first researchers to make this claim. More than 40 years ago, organizational theorist Henry Mintzberg suggested that information was central to managerial work and that the most important managerial roles revolved around information (monitoring, disseminating and acting as a spokesperson). Mintzberg described managers as the nerve centers of organizations and said informational activities “tie all managerial work together.”2 Other researchers suggested that management itself could be considered a form of information gathering and that we are quickly moving from an information society to an attention economy, where competitive advantage comes not from acquiring more information but from knowing what to pay attention to.3 Later research confirmed that dealing with information is critical and found that managers’ communication abilities are directly related to their performance.
1. J. Birkinshaw and S. Heywood, “Too Big to Manage?” Wall Street Journal, Oct. 26, 2009, Business Insight section, produced in collaboration with MIT Sloan Management Review.
2. H. Mintzberg, “The Nature of Managerial Work” (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), 73.
3. J. Pfeffer and G.R. Salancik, “The External Control of Organizations: A Resource Dependence Perspective” (New York: Harper & Row, 1978); and T.H. Davenport and J.C. Beck, “The Attention Economy: Understanding the New Currency of Business” (Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2001).
4. L.E. Penley, E.R. Alexander, I.E. Jernigan and C.I. Henwood, “Communication Abilities of Managers: The Relationship to Performance,” Journal of Management 17, no. 1 ( March 1991): 57-76.
5. This had been already found by organizational theorist J.A. Chilingerian, who observed the same type of executives we discuss here. See J.A. Chilingerian, “Managing Strategic Issues and Stakeholders,” in “Building the Strategically Responsive Organization,” ed. H. Thomas, D.E. O’Neal, R. White and D. Hurst (Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons, 1994), 189-213.
6. In addressing the issue of managing knowledge on a personal level, academics have mainly focused on identifying abstract competencies (for example, cognitive, informational and social skills) without clarifying how they look in practice and how they can be acquired. Consultants, on the other hand, have often either embraced the technological way exclusively or developed their own theories for how things ought to be, based on limited empirical evidence. In particular, for some, Web 2.0 tools appear to constitute the panacea that will solve the current problems of increasing information overload. However, there are long-standing warnings that technology alone can never solve the knowledge management needs of both individuals and organizations. For the academic perspective, see, for example, K. Wright, “Personal Knowledge Management: Supporting Individual Knowledge Worker Performance,” Knowledge Management Research & Practice 3, no. 3 (2005): 156-165; and M. ´Swigo´n, “Personal Knowledge and Information Management: Conception and Exemplification,” Journal of Information Science 39, no. 6 (December 2013): 832-845. For a discussion from a consultant’s point of view, see L. Razmerita, K. Kirchner and F. Sudzina, “Personal Knowledge Management: The Role of Web 2.0 Tools for Managing Knowledge at Individual and Organisational Levels,” Online Information Review 33, no. 6 (2009): 1021-1039. See one warning as pointed out by R. McDermott, “Why Information Technology Inspired but Cannot Deliver Knowledge Management,” California Management Review 41, no. 4 (summer 1999): 103-117.
7. The observation that managers spend most of their time talking to others has been made several times following seminal work by Mintzberg and by business theorist Rosemary Stewart. Similar findings come from the research tradition on information behavior. See Mintzberg, “The Nature of Managerial Work,” and R. Stewart, “Managers and Their Jobs” (London: Pan Books, 1967); also see M.J. Bates, “Information,” in “Encyclopedia of Library and Information Sciences,” 3rd ed., ed. M.J. Bates and M.N. Maack (Boca Raton, Florida: CRC Press, 2010); D.O. Case, “Looking for Information: A Survey of Research on Information Seeking, Needs and Behavior,” 2nd ed. (London: Academic Press, 2007); and K.E. Pettigrew, R. Fidel and H. Bruce, “Conceptual Frameworks in Information Behavior,” Annual Review of Information Science and Technology 35 (2001): 43-78.
8. The fact that managers need to assemble a personal advisory board has been recently discussed in Y. Shen, R.D. Cotton and K.E. Kram, “Assembling Your Personal Board of Advisors,” MIT Sloan Management Review 56, no. 3 (spring 2015): 81-90.
9. Our findings align with previous studies of information bias, information bubbles and, more generally, how managers process information and make sense of it. What we are suggesting here, however, is that to understand these key aspects of managerial work we must look not inside executives’ heads but rather around them — at what they do with whom. For examples of previous studies, see E. Auster and C.W. Choo, “Environmental Scanning by CEOs in Two Canadian Industries,” Journal of the American Society for Information Science 44, no. 4 (May 1993): 194-203; J.P. Walsh, “Managerial and Organizational Cognition: Notes From a Trip Down Memory Lane,” Organization Science 6, no. 3 (May-June 1995): 280-321; K.E. Weick, “Sensemaking in Organizations” (Thousand Oaks, California: Sage, 1995); and G. de Alwis, S. Majid and A.S. Chaudhry, “Transformation in Managers’ Information Seeking Behaviour: A Review of the Literature,” Journal of Information Science 32, no. 4 (August 2006): 362-377.
10. In the case of Barclays Bank, which was involved in the Libor scandal, a large investor was reported to have asked how Bob Diamond (the then-CEO of Barclays) could “not have known what was going on” given that the manipulation “took place right under his nose.” See J. Quinn, “Libor Scandal: Was Barclays the Worst Offender?” Telegraph, July 1, 2012, www.telegraph.co.uk. On the Challenger disaster, see, for example, D. Vaughan, “The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA” (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997).