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Apr 18, 2007: Information architects on communicating to IT managers

Recently, I posted a query to the Information Architecture Institute's members-only mailing list. I was seeking advice on what to cover in a brief, half-hour talk I'll be giving soon to the senior IT people of a Fortune 50 corporation. Aside from an elevator pitch introduction to information architecture, what else should I cover?

I seeded the conversation with a few suggestions of my own, intended to provoke the audience a bit:

  • Centralization is not a solution; centralize what makes sense, and leave the rest in local hands. Let's end the wasteful pendulum swing from centralization to autonomy and back.
  • Enterprise taxonomies are one of the last things you should be building; take baby steps first and wait until your organization is mature enough to tackle complex enterprise taxonomies—if it even will be necessary.
  • You don't need to license a new enterprise search engine; we IA types can help you make what you've got actually work.
  • Emergent approaches (e.g., folksonomic tagging) have a low cost of entry, and even if they aren't immediately successful, can really help by educating the grass-roots in the organization about information architecture issues.

I received over two dozen helpful responses-including from such well-regarded experts as Keith Instone, Joe Lamantia, Peter Merholz, Eric Reiss, Samantha Starmer, and Todd Zaki Warfel. I'm guessing that, collectively, they spent about three hours considering and answering my question. Let's call that a US$600 value. I mention this becase, if you're one of those IAI-skeptics, I'd love for you to explain how that kind of professional advice isn't worth the IAI's US$40 annual membership fee.

Anyway, you can be a piker and still benefit from their wisdom without joining the IAI, as I've summarized their responses below. (I wish I could have offered some reactions of my own, but there was too much information and too little time.)

I've anonymized the sources, as they originally posted their answers to a closed list. (I have asked them for permission to reveal their names, and will be inserting them in the coming days.)

OK, here goes:

Russ Unger recommended avoiding talking about information architecture per se (and I agree), and focus on visual examples of the IA process. "Show them examples-from the ground floor to final product, and discuss how each step of IA can help out the other phases of their projects."

"I'd ask questions" said another source, such as "When does information/data become knowledge? How do you facilitate the process?"

One respondent raised the specter of globalization, internationalization and localization costs, which are a growing concern to those developing both information architectures and enterprise architectures. She's especially concerned about the lack of innovation and leadership in these areas.

If Louis Rosenfeld LLC had a larger research budget, I'd follow Alok Jain's advice: explore the "latest research towards key IT challenges in large enterprises... inward focusing (within IT group) or outward focused (role of IT to the rest of the organization)." Gartner and Forrester especially could be good sources to help portray "the role IA plays in overall IT strategy and business strategy."

Marianne Sweeney took issue with my suggestion that good information architecture could negate the need to replace a search engine. "...we're not alchemists and more often than not, there is no gold to be found in the dross regardless of the magic". She'd instead focus on helping IT managers better differentiate enterprise search from Web search, wean them from their Google dependency, and make clear that plug and play search technology is far from effective.

"The 'new' IT leader is actually a BUSINESS person (not an IT person). Or at least a 50/50 person" said an information architect at one of the world's largest enterprises. "Show them how IAs are likewise 50/50 type people" who understand the business, the users, the content, and the technology, and are therefore positioned to assist developing business strategy, as many managers don't have such a combination of strengths.

He suggested cautioning IT managers that an enterprise's information architecture directly reflects on how the company is organized. "...If you understand how the web site should be organized to serve your customers, then you know how the company should be organized." This is a radically different approach to understanding the value of information architecture (and one that I've always agreed with), where the information architecture is the tail that wags the dog.

Our anonymous enterprise veteran offered one last piece of advice: "Do it wrong quickly".

Joe Lamantia, whose background is in enterprise user experience consulting, suggested the following five points, which aren't necessarily specific to information architecture, but are certainly relevant to it nonetheless:

  1. "IT begins with 'information,' not 'technology'"
  2. "A tool does not equal a solution"
  3. "A package is not the same as a system"
  4. "What's good for the business, is good for IT: what's good for IT is not necessarily good for the business.
  5. "'Enterprise' means quality and capability, not quantity and cost."

Joe went on to note that IT managers typically adopt reactive, rather than innovative, approaches to planning: "...this means providing solutions to needs that the business defines, rather than counseling strategically on the best combined approach to meeting a common business goal based on the experiences that people want/need/will pay for/must have." This reactive stance is often due to the business not understanding the basics of the technology domain, and therefore not being able to imagine how technology might enable better user experience.

The reactivity of IT and business feed on each other, and serve as "a lingering cultural barrier to an integrated, holistic view of the new reality around us that will only disappear fully when the people who've been trained to think in terms of such exclusive categories are no longer designing organizations and incentive systems... Until this artificially compartmented viewpoint changes and matures—to reflect a holistic understanding of technology and business as interconnected—IT will more often than not be totally unable to respond to the line of thinking you are offering."

Elton Billings, who's worked for years within IT organizations, noted the struggle that many CIOs face in having a seat at the strategy table, primarily because IT is often considered a commodity. "The best CIOs... dealt with this by (making) the commodities... as dependable as the dial tone on your home telephone" while cutting the costs associated with providing those services.

These CIOs then quietly look for ways to add strategic value, and eventually find themselves included in the strategic decision-making process. These CIOs will benefit from understanding the various flavors of user experience, because it will help them beyond commodity provision to the strategic aspect of IT, namely "getting the Right information to the Right people at the Right time". Executive dashboards are one strategic, noticeable service that CIOs might consider providing.

Elton also recommended not mentioning knowledge management, as many CIOs already been burned by KM projects.

Professor David Sless raised an issue that's quite thorny to so many information architects, and one that will surely be on the minds of many IT people: "What about the ROI in IA?" David Fiorito chimed in on ROI, and suggested a specific example of IA's ROI: quality user research, when coupled with early conceptual testing, makes the development cycle shorter and more clearly defined. He also emphasized that good user experience design processes include, rather than compete with, IT.

Echoing an earlier recommendation, Samantha Starmer suggested starting the dialogue boldly: "I'm going to tell you how you and your IT organization can lead your company's strategy..." with good UX design as the key.

Todd Zaki Warfel noted that IT managers often feel scapegoated for failures, and are therefore a bit gun shy and risk averse. He advised helping IT managers change "their measurement of success to be the end delivered product rather than following some six sigma process."

Mike Steckel also encouraged IT managers toward a more expansive role, noting that "There are too many exciting things going on right now for IT departments to be spending their lives making bits available."

Adaptive Path's Peter Merholz encouraged IT managers to avoid focusing on "information" or "technology," but work toward improving the experiences that such things allow people to have. "We've reached a point where we've maximized efficiency until we can't maximize no more, and that in order to realize new top-line value, we need to innovate... And right now, innovations are coming from engaging with the experiences people want to have and satisfying that."

Peter Jones of Redesign Research suggested helping CIOs and IT professionals understand what advice information architects can provide in dealing with knowledge management challenges. "I've always seen KM as an organizational competency program, and not a knowledge sharing program based on IT... IA has a huge role to play in these initiatives, and we ought to be warning IT against the wasteful implementation of IT systems for KM, when a organizational, socially-based or skills-based program ought to be promoted instead." He went on to suggest a strategy that I'd already been considering: surprise the audience with some counter-intuitive propositions, and show how far IA has evolved in recent years.

"I'd start with some user research," suggested former IAI president Victor Lombardi: "What do they do now? What are their big love and pain points?" And how can information architecture help them with these issues? He also suggested digging a bit deeper, when possible, addressing specifics like how information architecture overlaps/affects SOA (service oriented architecture)?

Andrew Gent found himself cringing and wincing at many of the prior responses. His source of discomfort wasn't the content of the postings, but rather the reminders of "the many, many painful conversations I have had with IT folk over the past 5-10 years." Based on that experience, he also suggested speaking empathetically rather than challenging the audience. He provided an excellent perspective on the dilemma faced by IT managers: "...besides the traditional complaints that they aren't providing enough services fast enough, they are also being slandered with accusations of not knowing how to do their job since 'it's so easy on the web'." Perhaps the challenge this audience needs to hear, after a fair measure of sympathy, is to see threats as opportunities. Many newer, web-based services are already in use by employees, and can provide opportunities when combined with a quality information architecture "that lets you divide (organize) and conquer information glut."

JuxtaProse's Jay Fienberg suggested presenting information architecture as a means for devising a enterprise architecture that shows how the organization actually could function, rather than basing the architecture on technical, physical, and political divisions. "Information architecture can provide a virtual enterprise architecture that buffers business (information) needs from org chart and system changes. IA pre-figures changes and can be quick to adapt". He and another respondent also cautioned awareness of how IA may have a different meaning to IT professionals (the Zachman Framework's definition is likely the more familiar one).

Bob Goodman outlined some common problems that CIOs face:

  • Lack of alignment between business and technology
  • Lack of agility in conceiving, developing, buying, and deploying successful software
  • Communication problems internally (within IT, between IT and Business) and externally (between IT and vendors and/or partners)

Bob went on to suggest that the information architecture toolkit can help CIOs address these problems by providing "topsight"—a combination of insight into the big picture and its component parts that includes both business and technology perspectives.

Eric Reiss of FatDUX suggested asking the provocative question "what would happen if someone simply pulled the plug on their website. Would their organization become stronger or weaker?" He also cautioned against talking about information architecture specifically; people are interested in the ends, not the means.

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Comment: Joe (Apr 19, 2007)

One thing I'd add is this quote from Alan Cooper: "The only thing more expensive than building software is building bad software." Then I'd add my corollary: "The most expensive software of all is software people don't use."

Comment: Daniel Szuc (Apr 21, 2007)

Why have and maintain so much content in the first place? Are their better ways to prioritize the content we have, prioritize content as it goes in & ways to bring the content cream to the top?

Why? People are drowning in information and we are trying to help this by putting new buzz words and platforms on top the problem. Do we need all that content in the first place?

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