Breaking The Information Barrier In Companies

There are various areas in which organizations need to reinvent the way of doing things. But, to me, one of the most worrisome issues is the issue of rigid hierarchies, control mechanisms and collaboration. I believe these are critical barriers to maximizing enterprise performance.

Often I find that “information” is the key. It is one of the most powerful sources of individual competitive advantages in an organizational context. In most cases, we find that the higher  you are in the hierarchy, the more information you have. Authority is the mirror image of the information one has. In a way, how much should you know is dependent on where you sit across a range of job grades! And, we are not just talking about sensitive information like detailed financials or diversity reports (though I don’t feel these are sensitive!). We are talking the essentials – information about product / services, procedures, systems, repository of innovative ideas, best practices, customer insights or even people – as to who specializes in what or who is the “go-to” person for a particular issue. And, all this information is usually sitting pretty somewhere “up” there! Far away from people, who might need it the most!

If this issue is unchecked, often I see cases of “information hoarding”. As humans, we like to “own” things – put a seal on them – “mine”! It appears we sometimes do the same with information. Especially, when organization structures / practices / culture does not place enough emphasis (I am not talking about mere lip service) on sharing. Worst of all, the whole system sometimes ends up rewarding the ones who hoard information. After all, information is power and one can succeed with the right information. So, that becomes the norm. The message is out. “Hold on to the information. You are better off keeping it to yourself, rather than sharing it with everyone. You can get things done. Win that big bonus. Become a star. And you can outpace others in office.”

What does this lead to? Sooner, rather than later – poor enterprise performance. Let me give some examples, which you might be able to relate to:

  • You call your bank’s phone-banking line because you have a wrong transaction in your account – nothing very major. The phone-banking rep puts you on hold to look into the manual on how to address the problem. Doesn’t find the right information and transfers your call to the “relevant” department. Again, no resolution. Looks like something is missing in the manual. Or maybe, some one sat there up in the corner office and designed it without knowing the ground realities. Finally, the call is transferred to the “manager”, who is able to reverse the transaction and closes out the issue. You look at your watch and realize that was 20 minutes of your time for a $10 transaction!
  • You are attending an exhibition where companies are demonstrating some fancy manufacturing machinery. It’s a big event. You set your eyes on a piece of work, and you reckon it can improve your plant’s productivity by 10-15%. But, you are worried about energy consumption and ask the company’s reps “I know this machinery can be customized to a customer’s needs. Which specific components are most customizable from the point of reducing energy consumption, while maintaining productivity?” The rep looks at you, looks at his colleagues. Smiles. “I will have to get back to you.” Wonders to himself “Boss knows!”. And, you move on to talk to some of the other stalls at the exhibition.
  • A customer calls you and asks you to come over to make a sales pitch on a specific subject, say business continuity services. Given the customer’s industry, you know that your colleague in another team had made a similar pitch a few years back. You go to her, ask for some materials that you can re-use. She says, “I am a bit busy. Getting on a plane soon. Will try to send something in the next 1 week”. Oh! The customer wanted the presentation tomorrow. And you get back to your desk and spend the rest of the day (and part of the night) in re-inventing something that already exists in a fine form. Talk about putting in productive hours at work!

The list is endless. And, the potential for productivity gains by addressing this area is endless too. I feel very passionately for this issue, since I have seen hundreds of people, including myself, being affected by this. And even more so, because now we really seem to have enabling technology to support information sharing like never before. And that is a very important development. But, technology in itself can never ever be the ultimate solution. It’s a tool, not an outcome. More importantly, it will have to be about imbibing the value of sharing, building a culture which supports and disproportionately rewards “information disseminators”.

We need to free up information. What has been your experience? How can we hack companies’ management practices and liberate the information to reach where it truly belongs – the people? How can we bust these islands of information? How can we build this component of “the ideal enterprise”. How can we do that? Tell me now!

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2 thoughts on “Breaking The Information Barrier In Companies

  1. Truly agree with your views. Information hoarding is one of the most intangible yet powerful organizational hazards that has got entrenched over a number of years. Collaboration is the key word these days and many companies know that true innovation comes with adequate collaboration.Incidentally since organizations are built with people and people have their own individual interests of safe gurading their position and power, this becomes even more difficult to uproot. Information flow needs to be both ways- a customer facing employee may be withholding as much critical information as a senior manager. Organizations need to put a NUMBER to the losses induced by information hoarding. That number can be a powerful index to work on hoarding, possibly it can a predictor of the organization’s future capability to innovate.

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    • Great comment, Vidhya! And good to have you pass by my blog.
      Collaboration is the key, but I guess sometimes individual interests take over group interests. Maybe, we could look at setting a better set of KPIs which place a greater or at least the same emphasis on individual goals.

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