Want information fast or want it right? Learn how to have both.


One of the ironies of modern business is that the amount of data in corporate repositories is exploding, yet, in many organizations, knowledge workers can’t get information when they need it.

In fact, workers often wonder, “If I can get all the world’s online information in less than a second through a Google or a Bing question, why can’t I get last quarter’s sales numbers just as easily?” according to Tom Davenport, professor of IT and management at Babson College.

Information delivery can affect how companies compete because it plays a critical role in fast decision making. Davenport and John McCoy, solutions architect for business process management (BPM) at Lexmark, discussed effective strategies for dealing with information-delivery challenges in a recent InformationWeek webcast sponsored by Lexmark.

Define key decisions

Before it can effectively meet the information needs of various departments, IT has to know what the critical decisions are for each group. Executives need to identify and prioritize decisions that are critical to their business strategy so the information they need to make those decisions can be optimized for analytics and business intelligence.

“Identify which decisions really matter to the business and what kinds of information can speed the specific strategic and tactical actions that follow,” Davenport recommended.

Many companies have processes in place that could be greatly optimized through better information dissemination. “By getting information to decision makers faster, we realize efficiency gains they never imagined were possible,” Lexmark’s McCoy said. “I’ve yet to see a process that could not be improved by more timely information delivery.”

Yet IT organizations are rarely focused on how workers use information to make decisions. They create state-of-the-art data warehouses that store troves of information, but don’t necessarily know how that information is being used, Davenport said.

Identify the types of information work

Another step in helping IT support decision making is to identify what kinds of information work take place in the company. Davenport described four models and the technologies that best support them.

  • The transactional model involves highly routine work that depends on formal rules and procedures and doesn’t involve a lot of choice (call center work, for example), requires workflow systems and document management.
  • The integration model, which involves fairly structured tasks typically carried out in teams (IT programming work, for example), benefits from workflow and collaboration tools. Support for content reuse helps teams build on existing work so they don’t have to recreate everything from scratch.
  • The expert model, in which the work is very judgment oriented, based on individual expertise (an individual doctor in a medical practice, for example), needs decision-support tools and rules engines to capture expertise. However, experts must have the option to override automated recommendations.
  • The collaboration model, which involves improvisational work that’s highly dependent on practitioners working in teams (lawyers or bankers collaborating on a merger or acquisition transaction, for example), is the hardest to support. Often, teams are simply given access to a data warehouse along with spreadsheets and other simple tools, because it’s difficult to predict what the process will involve.

Modern case management tools help in these scenarios, according to Lexmark’s McCoy. “We’ve had some exciting advances in dynamic case management and adaptive case management where we can support processes that don’t necessarily have a straight line trajectory from start to finish,” he said.

Drive the right delivery speed

Although knowledge workers want information when they need it, most don’t want all their information delivered faster. Davenport cited research he conducted in which most managers felt they were receiving cash flow, receivable and payables information with plenty of speed. “These are areas where information has to be processed and delivered quickly,” Davenport said. “But 70 percent said they need customer and employee satisfaction information faster, which indicates that many organizations do not collect this kind of data frequently enough.”

The economy can also affect which information people want quickly. In a recession, cash flow, spending against budgets, and receivables/payables are important because they reveal how companies are doing. In a growing economy, managers want timely employee satisfaction data so they can keep attrition rates down. Precise cash flow and market share data are less important in a booming economy, since management is focused on filling orders and meeting customer demand.

Eliminate information bottlenecks

Before the speed of information delivery can be addressed, executives need to identify what their key decisions are and what information is necessary to support those decisions.

“It can be a big mistake to do the opposite and begin with the technology before you’ve established those needs,” McCoy said, “because you may find that the technology you’ve selected cannot achieve those goals.”

Once information requirements are identified, IT departments should look for solutions that meet user and technical needs. For example, managers and professionals should have the ability to pull information when they need it. Alerts can be useful when decision makers can define the boundaries of when they want to be automatically notified.

Several technologies can improve information delivery. In-memory applications are used for analytics and scoring, rapid interactive analysis, and database processing. New types of databases, such as vertical or columnar, are optimized for query and reporting. Case management can speed up workflow and information delivery for semi-structured processes. Easy-to-use analytical software lets workers do their own queries and analyses, pulling information proactively rather than waiting for it to be delivered.

Information delivery plays big role in decision making. Yet the human factor can’t be overlooked. “Decision making relies on getting the right information in a timely manner,” McCoy said. “Once you’ve done that, there are no excuses. Make sure the people receiving the information have the knowledge and understanding to make the right decision.”

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