Building An Information System That Is Fit For Purpose

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Monday, 9.18pm

Sheffield, U.K.

We’re not in an information age anymore. We’re in the information management age. – Chris Hardwick

In my last post I said we would look at some principles of designing an information system. These ideas build on those set out in Peter Checkland and Sue Holwell’s book Information, systems and information systems.

I come across two, perhaps three main categories of information systems these days. There is a rapidly evolving world that’s based around e-commerce – finding you the product you want when you want it. The algorithmic challenges there are huge, from whittling down millions of items to the ones that match your search query to recommending what else you might like to buy. There’s a lot of money to be made in that part of the market and so there are a lot of companies chasing solutions in that space.

We’re not going to talk about those.

The next category of systems has to do with automated control. These are tools that try and do away with human intervention – where flows of information are processed and make things more efficient. Take pensions or banking for example. Not that long ago you had to go and talk to someone to make changes on your account. Now, when was the last time you entered a physical bank? The principle behind automating these services is that you will end up with something that works faster and is of better quality. It’s not really about cost, but if you get it right costs will fall as well.

We’re not really interested in that category of work either.

We’re interested in information and information only matters to people – to the people that are involved in a situation and need to think. An automated workflow doesn’t think in terms of meaning or sense, which are what we associated with the task of interpreting information. It just processes data and moves onto the next step. Information is necessary for people who need to work together and figure out what to do – it supports collaborative action.

It’s this task – helping people collaborate and make better decisions together that we’re interested in for this post.

Recent definitions of quality talk about something as “being fit for purpose”, a change from the previous definition of “being fit for use” according to Juran’s quality handbook. Only humans can talk about purpose, either individually or as a group – so the thing you have to figure out before you do anything is understand what purpose looks like for the group that’s involved. This is necessarily unique because each group is different and each situation they face is different – there are no universal solutions that will fit all people in all situations.

So, before you start doing any work on your system figure out what the purpose of the system is.

Once you have that you can work out what information is needed to support the group. There is always a variety of information that needs to be brought in. If you start with the information you’ll often end up discovering the things you left out are the most important, so you want an approach that is flexible and that can be extended as you realize you need more stuff.

The next thing that happens is that designers and managers make the mistake of thinking that all you have to do is provide people with data and they’ll take the right action. That’s never the case – you need to help people understand the data, get them to collaborate and work together to make meaning from the information they’ve been provided so that they can decide to take action that supports their purpose. How many systems are out there that truly support collaboration. What does that even mean really?

If you don’t already know then you’ll only learn by doing – by starting to talk about things with your team and looking to see if people understand or if there are gaps that need to be addressed. We won’t get this right the first time or the second which is why the whole process needs to be underpinned by a commitment to continuous learning, to an attitude that says, “We’ll work on this together till we figure out something that works.”

The difficulty teams face out there, in the real world, is that all this talk of information systems is too academic, locked away in research that is hard to read and access. In the real world we ask questions like “What app do you use?” rather than “What do we need to put in place so that we can work better together?” You can do it using tools you already have – if you put them together in the right way.

But things are changing, there are examples of how to do this well and the future is going to be built by small teams that work well together, helped rather than hindered by their technology. In particular, you’ll have people who need to get work done working with technical people who can create tools to make decisions that support purposeful action. And we need more of this because there are important challenges that we, as societies, need to deal with.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

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