While spending some time in an automobile factory recently, where I had chance of meeting many people from production and manufacturing background, I had to frequently explain what I do and since I was amidst many engineers, I found myself calling an information engineer. Not that software engineer is not well understood but It was easier to explain to logistics expert that my job was similar to his. He manages flow of goods and my job deals with flow of information. I know information engineering is just one of approaches we take in software engineering but using this perspective provides a different and interesting view of enterprise IT.
For effective information flow throughout the enterprise, info pipes need be laid down and taps and faucets installed at points where this information needs to be consumed, This can be understood as design of IT system landscape for enterprise and building applications (taps!). Together they can be called Info-structure. The master plan of information flow, the taps that need to be installed and how information will be consumed is what a typical enterprise information architecture would be. It is also required that on regular intervals it is checked that pipes are not clogged and that information is flowing smoothly. Clogged information flow is bad as it blocks and wastes precious human energy. To discover this ,the pertinent questions to ask is if employees have access to information which they need to know to do their jobs better and efficiently. The moment you find employees struggling with and groping for information, you would know that there are problems within organization’s info-structure. And the common symptoms of this are when you hear employees say : “I don’t have this information, I will call Tom“, or, ” Oh, I know that data is in excel sheet but it is not very recent“, or “Let me call Mr. Gupta and check if he has the latest data on this“.
In today’s fast moving economy where business decision are to be made quickly, the information flow has to become more fluid. For example, in an automotive assembly line, use of SAP for running MRP and production planning is not enough. On demand information is needed, and not just by management but also at lower levels. The buyers department need to know historically which suppliers have problem delivering on time , the store manager need to know how parts age in inventory and if he needs to focus on logistics of certain parts more than the others. Business intelligence or BI is becoming important for this very reason and BI is akin to installing filters over the structured information flow. For information to become more liquid, the data trapped inside applications has to be unlocked and put on gradient. Enterprise also has to become porous as it has to absorb information from outside its boundaries and ,also , if I can put it that way , deliberately leak its own information outside its perimeter including to its customers. Reverse osmosis of information at enterprise boundaries!
Social media is also becoming an important element in enabling info-structure, as these tools are cheap and much effective ways of drawing employees into the information flow or let them plug into info-structure. They become social filters of information and can provide the ad-hoc plumbing over which unstructured information can flow overcoming departmental barriers. Their efficacy in knowledge based enterprises, where production of data or information is primary business is well understood but they are equally important in traditional businesses where information is result of business activities. To provide a simple example, a help manual on chassis number generation or a vehicle parts specification document is ok as a static document exchanged over emails. But, when kept on a Wiki, this information transforms from static to fluid and can flow more easily. And liquidity of information is only one advantage, distillation and refinement is another. Enterprise micro blogging platforms, wikis; they can enable social distillation of information. Increasingly, enterprise IT is going to be lot more about making information liquid and enabling its flow within enterprise and outside it as well. This diffusion of information will create a more “knowing” enterprise and that will be a key advantage in knowledge age.