ANALYSTS CORNER -- Let's Get Personal

ANALYSTS CORNER -- Let's Get Personal

You're probably not thinking much about your post-Y2K agenda yet. But surely by February or March 2000, most of the problems will have been solved and global economic catastrophe averted. What will be the primary concern of IS then?You could install Windows 99 (late as usual) on everybody's PCs, figure out what to do with all that great enterprise resource planning (ERP) data you've got or start planning for the year 10000. But let me recommend something completely different.

Since the day the Univac started passing around electrons, we have dealt with information management as an organizational issue, not a personal one. IT planners and data architects have focused on what information the organization needs. Reporting systems have addressed the critical success factors of the business as a whole. When individuals were addressed at all in information management, they were encouraged or threatened about adhering to organizational standards of hardware, software or data nomenclature.

What we haven't done is address how individuals manage their personal information. I'd argue that today our organizational information systems are infinitely better than our personal systems. Why do I think that? For starters, when I'm speaking to large audiences, I routinely ask people to raise their hands if they feel they have an effective personal information environment. Out of thousands of possible hand-raisers, I've gotten only two. Ever.

Second, I've always subscribed to the highly sophisticated research methodology that recommends analyzing your own behavior in the absence of any better source. And I am a walking personal information management disaster. My most effective repositories are my pockets; but once a note, a business card or even a check leaves them, they often vanish for good. I get a lot of e-mail, and I often find that I answer the most trivial ones first -- just because they're easy -- while those requiring a bit of thought scroll off the screen and may never get a response.

I do have a Palm-Pilot, a couple of laptops and a few desktop machines, so I have no lack of personal horsepower. However, all that technology has compounded the problem. An address, to-do item or file I need could be on any one of those devices.

As for my desks and filing cabinets-let's just say that I took great comfort in a recent news item that said companies where employee desks are messy have better financial performance than those companies where employees have neatnik desks.

The simple answer to my problem is that I have underinvested in my personal information environment. I should probably contemplate what my information needs are, organize a better paper- and hard-drive-filing structure, create some e-mail folders, study how to do better Web searches, get a business card scanner and spend my airplane time keying phone numbers into my cellular phone list.

I have three problems with these virtuous activities, however. One, I find such tasks exceedingly boring. Two, I'm not convinced they would make me more productive; I spend my airplane time writing things like this column, for example. Three, some of these things I just don't know how to do. Like many an executive I've consulted, I don't know what my information needs are or how to decide whether I'm better off reading The Wall Street Journal on the Web or in print (although I know I prefer the comfort of ink on cellulose).

Somebody needs to figure out this stuff. Providing access to information, long the mission of IS groups, is not the problem anymore. We all have more information than time, and we're trying to manage more and more information-more, in fact, than some smaller data centers contained 20 years ago -- at an individual level. No matter how good an organization's information is, if individuals can't find it, store it and use it, then it's of little value. Personal information effectiveness has become the limiting factor in business information management for most organizations.

Assuming you wanted to give your own personal information management system a shot, how would you go about it? Hey, if I knew, I'd write a bestseller on the topic. I don't think anyone really knows, but I will suggest a few starting points.

-- First, start by translating classic time management and personal organization principles into our digital environment. For example, the idea that every piece of information should be touched only once may be of some use.

-- Consult a college textbook. The only one I know of that addresses this particular area is Personal Productivity with Information Technology (McGraw-Hill, 1996) by Gordon Bitter Davis and J. David Naumann. I personally wasn't swayed into adopting its gospel of personal information planning and investment, but a more disciplined reader might be.

-- Look for some exemplars in your organization-real information heat-seekers who are high-performers as well-and study how they do it. You'll need several different models: the fully automated nerd (like the guy I knew who ran his entire life from his Newton and was almost forced to retire when Apple Computer Inc. discontinued the product), the paper junkie and the hybrid use-the-appropriate-medium-for-the-task-at-hand wise guy.

-- Find experts in certain aspects of personal information management -- the best information searchers, for example, are clearly librarians; the best storers, records managers -- and start to pull together a body of integrated knowledge.

-- Hire a consultant to shadow key executives for a day and get a better understanding of what information and knowledge they use (and, perhaps more important, what they don't use that they should).

Once you have some aspect of the problem figured out, start offering courses to your employees. I don't know of any IS organization that currently offers a single bit of instruction on approaches to managing personal information. I say currently because the CIO several generations back at the former Bank of Boston offered a course in listening skills; that was at least somewhat related to personal information management. I've applied the "raise your hand if you're doing this" test here as well: The one person I found who offered instruction on effective Web searching turned out to be a librarian.

Universities and even elementary and secondary schools should teach students how to better manage their personal information, but they don't. After all, what knowledge is more valuable than how to find, organize and learn from the world's information? Maybe if schools did teach this, we'd remember a little more of what we learned in those institutions.

In 21 years of schooling, I don't remember any formal instruction on how to find, manage and apply information except for one professor's confident injunction to use the card catalog before approaching a reference librarian (and I think he was probably wrong). Perhaps you could lobby your favorite college or university into offering such a course-ideally to first-year students.

But before we start getting better at personal information management, it may be useful to try to find out just how bad the situation is today. After all, if I'm the only info-deviant in town and there's no real problem, you can forget you ever read this. And if you were to undertake some initiative in personal information, you could then measure your progress against an initial benchmark.

If you wanted to do this formally, you could survey a sample of employees to learn just how overloaded, disorganized and info-stressed they feel. Or run a time study; watch some typical employees and managers for a day and measure how much time they spend looking for information. You could even measure the time it takes on average to respond to an e-mail; my guess is that it's rising in most organizations.

If you want to benchmark informally, send some of your colleagues various e-mail and paper memos and then ask them a month later about some arcane piece of information in the memos. After they stop cursing, ask them how long it took them to find the information.

Of course, you have to be careful in getting personal with information in your company. The last thing to do is to start policing hard drives and e-mail in boxes. The idea is to offer education, insight and very gentle persuasion.

Carrots almost always work better than sticks, particularly when you're dealing with personal stuff.

(Thomas H. Davenport is a professor of management information systems at Boston University School of Management and director of the Andersen Consulting Institute for Strategic Change. He welcomes reader comments at

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