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Aug 16, 2002: We Put the "I" in "IT"

Last night I was talking with another information architect about the market for IA services. He works for an IT professional services firm that offers IA as part of its package. Unfortunately his company has fallen on hard times, and has experienced a few nasty bouts of downsizing.

There've been plenty of theories on why the demand for IT has bottomed out these past two years. One of my favorites is that, after years of gobbling up as many technologies as they could grab, organizations are now in digestion mode. The eye was bigger than the stomach, and IT heartburn is forcing those organizations to think twice about acquiring more technology, concentrating instead on deriving actual value from past IT investments.

IA services clearly add value to search engines, CMS, and other technologies. But that message often gets lost or muddled when delivered by IT salespeople. Not to mention that lately those salespeople are having a particularly difficult time getting their feet in anyone's doors.

Where am I going with this? Well, maybe the Argus model of a stand-alone IA services company makes more sense now than ever. Maybe IT has taken on enough negative connotations that it'd be better to sell IA as the separate, complementary service that it truly is, rather than burying it within a host of IT offerings. The market seems confused and dissatisfied with current IT "solutions" that rely solely on technology. Anecdotal evidence suggests that more people understand that human effort, as well as technology, is necessary to make information easier to find, use, create, deliver, and manage.

Not that I'm planning on it, but if I was going to start Argus II, our motto would be "We put the 'I' in 'IT'!" Whether bundled with IT or not, that should be the goal of information architects in the marketplace. And maybe it's time to seriously consider unbundling IA from IT.

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Comment: Keith Instone (Aug 16, 2002)

Interesting observations - as one who used to regularly argue with you about the Argus model, let me do it some more.

The anser, of course, is that we need BOTH types of IA - that which stresses the human issues (politics, organizational change, human intellect) and that which makes sure the technology makes it all happen.

Peter has split these into BigIA and Little IA - sometimes I use the terms Strategic IA and Design (or Tactical) IA. Perhaps another split worth exploring is this Human IA and Technology IA.

Regarding the Argus II model, then a key component would be that the Human IAs have tight integration with the Technology IAs.

The HIAs cannot just throw their work over the fence to the TIAs. That is one thing I have learned since "going on the inside" at IBM - I can do this hand-off so much better than a consultant can.

By the way, you are absolutely right that IT customers are not looking for technology alone but the whole package of an integrated solution. They are extremely leery of "consultants" (the folks who you PAY to determine what else you need to pay for) and are starting to do more and more research on their own. And that is exactly what I am working on @ IBM - not an easy chore because the company is really good at selling products, not solutions.

Comment: Debora Seys (Aug 16, 2002)

Hi Lou,

Here's the situation that I'm facing right now - we are in the process of implementing a content management system with controlled vocabularies and automated categorization components to it - and many of the 'configuration' questions that we have to answer in order to install and use the system are actually IA type questions. In other words, the software is flexible and we have to answer lots of questions for ourselves on how to set it up and whether to accept default attributes or design custom objects, etc.

What we need is:

- expertise surrounding our own situation, current processes and procedures, goals, needs, content inventory, etc. Presumably, we bring that to the table but as anyone who's worked in a large co. knows, it isn't always that simple to determine...

- expertise about the technology and what it can do, what it will do in the future and what will be the impact of one choice vs. another in the configuration process. Presumably the vendor brings that to the table but it's not usually all in the head of any one person - and customers often have a difficult time getting access to the people who *really* know the answers... and often they can't see the 'big picture' themselves.

- expertise about classification, information management and discovery, content workflows and lifecycles, search behavior, etc.

I could see a place for a IA consultant to sit alongside customer in discussions with the vendor - helping to interpret the technology and helping to make the 'configuration' decisions.

I could also see that the customer should have an IA on board no just as a consultant cause this is on-going work, you don't just turn on a CMS and walk away.

I can also see that the vendor needs an IA to help them design, develop and install systems such as these.

I'm not sure which side I'm on here - just trying to illustrate a real-life problem I guess...

Comment: Chris Farnum (Aug 16, 2002)

Have to admit that like Keith I'm torn about decoupling IAs from tech teams too now that I'm out in the field. At the same time, I thought that we provided a LOT of value in "Argus I" because we had an outsider's perspective which wasn't bogged down by techie constraints. One of the things that we did near the end of the first Argus was to hire a technologist to help fill the gap. That strategy really didn't have time to bear fruit. I think that it would be very worth-it for an IA-only firm to give it another try in the future. I like Debora's idea of a search engine configuration wizard teamed up with an IA.

Comment: Eric Scheid (Aug 16, 2002)

T shaped people, anyone?

Comment: vanderwal (Aug 18, 2002)

This subject of information and technology has been of interest with me for quite sometime. The term "IT" has been vastly dominated by the technology portion of the term. Oddly, in organizations that have Chief Information Officers (CIOs) and with out Chief Technology Officers (CTOs) the CIOs role is largely focused on technology to serve the information (this is fine), but the stress has been technological solutions. As nearly all of us in the IT field know, the technical solutions are far from perfect (I know nothing is life is perfect) and many times require reworking business processes to take advantage of the technologies best traits. This is much akin to Keith's point about technology companies selling products and not whole solutions.

In my work I came to it from the information and communication side many years ago and along with it I married the technology side, as it was a wonderful pairing with great promise. Over the years I have heard more than anybody's fair share of, "we don't have to worry about knowing the information, we can code around it". This is the point, I learned when you pull in the reins on the technical team. This is what drew me deeper into the realm of the technical side.

If we look at information from the communication viewpoint and what role the information will play as it transfers information to humans and to other machines for use and also reuse. We have to understand the information as its basic levels, similar to Maslow's "Hierarchy of Needs" (http://web.utk.edu/~gwynne/maslow.HTM). What are the human elements that are intended, i.e. what purpose does the information serve? What properties does the information need in order to transmit this information for best use? If the information is corporate sales trends and assessing and tacking variables that impact these trends, then we have to identify the human audiences that will be using this information. The basic level of "Information Need" is do we have the proper data or information to be able to create this type of report. Do we have the information types to provide usable information for the various audiences and do we understand the vocabulary of these audiences (vocabulary in this sense can be textual and visual as some audiences may best understand the information in charts and graphs, while others will best understand textual quantitative indicators). Do we have the basics to begin building this content, which will be tied to a technological question as to how the data and information is captured and stored? Once we can answer yes to these information, human, and technical questions we can move up the "Information Needs” hierarchy. It is also at this point that we know we can publish some information to have some folks make use of it, but we know the use of the information at this point will be far from optimal and the information may not be used in its proper method.

The next level would be questions of information use. We have established we have the data and content to build the information, but how will the information be used and who/what will be using the information. These questions will help shape the information structures and the medium(s) used to convey the information. The information may require different vocabularies that need to be established or used so the different audiences can best understand and make use of the information. What is the environment that the information will be used in and in what context? When these answers are established, only then can the technology to be used for the varying mediums be established. This level gives a great level certainty that the information and its use will be effective.

Far too often the technology is chosen with out asking these questions and the medium is used is driven by the technologies limitations, which limits the information's use and efficiency. Many organizations found that their reliance on storing all information in Adobe Acrobat did not fit their efficient information needs. Acrobat works best for replicating print versions of information and has other properties that work passably, like searching the text, providing information that is accessible to those that are handicapped, quickly accessing sections of that information over a network connection, etc. Many corporations found it was best or even desired to not store their information in Acrobat, but to offer the information in Acrobat as an output of another information storage methods that provided far greater information use and reuse (this does not apply to every organization as their are some organizations that make proper and efficient use of Acrobat and it serves that organization perfectly). These organizations came to the conclusion that the information was the primary importance and the information and its use should drive the technology.

The next step is to determine how the information can be optimized to take advantage of the mediums being used. This will allow the information to have the most impact. As the medium and technologies have been chosen to best present the information, at this point there are steps that can be taken to improve the marriage between the medium and the information. For example, we know that one of the mediums for the information will be Web pages; the information will need to be structured in a manner that takes advantage of the possibilities with that medium. The Web browser gives us the ability to present textual information and charts together, while providing relatively easy access to more detailed information and/or an interactive media presentation that permits the user to see the charts change over time based on the selection of these different variables (done with Flash, DHTML, etc.). Similar information could be offered in a PDF of the printed report that would print on 8.5 by 11 inch paper and one for A4 paper (the international standard paper size).

The last phase it validating and testing the information dissemination. We continually need to test to ensure we have identified all the audiences that are using the information, we are capturing all the data and information is required and makes sense to have for the information's use, we are capturing and storing the information in a means that is efficient for our needs to use the information, we are providing the audiences the information in a means that is most usable and efficient for them, and the information is being found and used

This Information Needs hierarchy allows the marriage of technology to information where and when it makes sense. This Information Needs seems to be the basis for the user centered design, information architecture, knowledge management, experience design, etc. There is an understanding of the balance that is required between the creators of the information; the information itself; the technology to capture, store, process, and present the information; and the users of the information.

In the past few years the technology and not the information nor the user of the information were the focal points. Money has been spent on technologies that have failed the purchasers and the technology and the whole of the information technology industry gets blamed. There is a great need for people that are willing to use their minds to create the foundation for information, its use, and the technologies that can help make this more efficient. The balance and the steps in the proper order must be there to give information and technology a chance.

Comment: Lou (Aug 20, 2002)

Great stuff Thomas! And very practical. I smell a book here. Or at least a Boxes and Arrows article?

Comment: Beth Mazur (Aug 23, 2002)

Two things. One, Ben Schneiderman has an article in the current ACM interactions titled "Understanding human reactivites and relationships: an excerpt from Leonardo's laptop" in which he too talks about the importance of viewing technology from the perspective of human need. He too discusses Maslow's hierarchy of needs, but decided he preferred Stephen Covey's version (Living, Loving, Learning, Leaving a Legacy) simpler.

Two, I'm not sure if I agree with the first part of Keith's comment. He seems to suggest that Peter Morville's version of big and little IA divide up into "that which stresses the human issues ... and that which makes sure the technology makes it all happen." I don't know that I buy that strategic==stressing human issues and tactical==making the technology happen. Or am I missing something?

Comment: ~brian christiansen (Aug 23, 2002)

Interesting post, Lou. In contrast to all the other comments here, all of which are intriguing and relavant, I was struck by another part of the post. Perhaps in keeping with my creative instinct, I really dig the tag line: *We put the "I" in "IT."* Since I didn't see any "™" up there, you may see that appear slightly adapted on my personal site one day. Don't worry, I won't put it to use for commercial purposes. I'm not that dirty. That's the biggest draw back to an online sketch/note pad though, right? Thought-theft?

Actually, I'm surprised that hasn't popped as a corporate tag line yet. It sounds too good.

But they say the biggest secret to creativity is to conceal your sources, right?

Comment: Lou (Aug 25, 2002)

Oh heck. Consider it "™"d...

Comment: Keith Instone (Aug 25, 2002)

I did not mean to imply the Big-Little IA split parallels the Human-Technical IA split.

I think they are indeed different splits.

Think of quadrants, I guess. Strategic-Human IA is one, Strategic-Technical is another, then Tactical-Human and finally Tactical-Technical.

Later I will try to come up with examples of each.

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