What Is “Information”?

How a group tests for reality and makes decisions also involves consen­sus on what constitutes data, what is information, and what is knowledge.

As information technology has grown, the issue has become sharpened because of debates about the role of computers in providing “information.” Information technology “professionals” often hold shared assumptions that differ in substantial ways from the assumptions of senior managers. For example, many company presidents will point out that all you get on a computer screen is “data” and what they really need is information, which implies a level of analysis of the data that is typically not available unless a sophisticated decision support system or expert system has been pro­grammed in (Rockart and DeLong, 1988). For a group to be able to make realistic decisions, there must be a degree of consensus on which informa­tion items are relevant to the task at hand.

A good example of the inherent ambiguity of abstract words such as information was illustrated in Dougherty ’s (1990) research on new prod­uct development teams. She identified five separate “thought worlds” that were represented by the functional specialists who were brought together in product development teams. The team knew that a good decision required having lots of information about the customer, and each member of the team believed that he or she had all the necessary information about cus­tomers. But each person knew something different and did not realize it until they attempted to reach a decision.

  • Marketers/business planners knew in general whether or not a market existed, the size of the potential market, what price and volume would produce appropriate profit levels, what the market trends were, and so on.
  • The field salespeople knew what the potential customers would use the product for, what the users ’ specific needs were, and how important the product was to customers relative to competitor’s products.
  • The distribution people knew how the product would be sold, what the merchandising plans were, and how many sales channels there would be.
  • The engineers knew just how big the product should be, what its techni­cal specifications should be, where the power plug should go, and so on.
  • The manufacturing people knew what the potential volumes were, how many models might be needed, and what the costs of production would be.

Each of these groups, by virtue of its members’ occupational background and functional experience, had built up concepts and language that were common to their occupational group but not necessarily understood clearly or valued by the others.

When members of these subcultures were brought together into a prod­uct development team, their ability to discover the others ’ realities was a major determinant of whether or not the product that was developed would succeed in the marketplace. To achieve mutual understanding, the groups had to go beyond the formal meeting processes into a more personal level of dialogue to create opportunities to discover where they agreed and disagreed, and how their information sets differed in content. They had to become a temporary cultural island to become an effective working group.

The question of “what is information” is of especial interest now as ency­clopedias are being replaced by network-based sources such as Wikipedia. Pure scientific criteria for truth are being replaced by a process much more akin to how DEC found truth—through proposal, challenge, debate, and ultimately resolution through survival.

Source: Schein Edgar H. (2010), Organizational Culture and Leadership, Jossey-Bass; 4th edition.

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