We need a new quality revolution, and the sooner we get it started, the better. We've experienced the product quality revolution and the service quality revolution. Both are still underway and bringing us valuable lessons.
Next comes the information quality revolution. With all the talk about the shift to an information-based economy, it's surprising how little is said about the staggering costs of defective or mishandled information. The issue of information quality is a sleeping giant, and its effects could dwarf those of product quality and service quality combined. Information quality is the flip side of virtually every other kind of quality issue you can name, and the reduction of information-related costs could present an enormous opportunity to increase return on investment for many organizations.
Case in point: The quality of medical care in the United States is widely reputed to be the world's best. Yet the American Medical Association estimates that more than 120,000 Americans die per year as a result of mistakes in diagnosis, treatment or medication. Who knows how to measure the real "cost" of this information quality problem?
Case in point: Several studies have estimated that point-of-sale price scanners used in thousands of food markets, department stores and many other retail shops may register incorrect prices as often as 1 percent to 3 percent of the time, as a result of database errors or scanner malfunctions. Although this represents a 97-percent rate of correct prices, the remaining 3 percent translates into millions of erroneous pricing events and millions of dollars of errors.
Case in point: About 20 percent to 30 percent of U.S. taxpayers who call the Internal Revenue Service for information abandon their calls due to long waits. Of those who get through, as many as 25 percent get bogus information about tax rules, presumably filing their tax returns based on what they are told. The real costs of these information malfunctions are unknowable.
Information atrocities are so common in business and government that most of us accept them with little protest. Yet, to paraphrase the classic question, if we can send people to the moon, why can't my bank ever get a wire transfer from a foreign client right? Why did my online brokerage firm close my account, after their own department lost the form I filled out two years ago to open the account? Why does buying a house involve a blizzard of paperwork, much of it incomprehensible and redundant? Why does my computer's operating system crash an average of once per day? Surely we can deliver information-related services better and at less cost.
Less is more
Another critical aspect of information quality must be the reduction of information. One of the biggest problems of the information revolution will be how to get rid of information, not how to create more of it. We are well past the point of information pollution in the advanced societies, and certainly in the United States. We need to learn to dispose of information, not cherish and hoard it.
The ecological downside of the PC, for example, is much like that of the automobile. Just as every additional car imposes costs on the transportation infrastructure, throws off pollution and eventually requires an additional investment to recycle, so every new PC imposes costs, throws off more information--much of it polluted--and has to be recycled when it becomes obsolete in about three years. The same reasoning applies to the Internet. Every new Web site makes its creator feel a part of the cyber-revolution, but it also adds to the pollution the rest of us must inhale. The much-vaunted Internet search engines like Yahoo!, Alta Vista, Excite and others will become less and less useful as they degenerate into card catalogs for useless information.
We have to adopt the precept that less is more, i.e., we need to cut down on the undisciplined production, duplication and distribution of information for its own sake. Is a 10-page illustrated report really better than a one-page report if the one page presents the very essence of the information needed? The recent success of "capsule" books, e.g., books for "Dummies" and "Idiots," testifies to the fact that people are well-aware of information overload. They want distilled knowledge on specific topics, not a drink from a fire hose.
Data, information and knowledge
We also need to understand the differences between data, information and knowledge. They are not the same, and they should not be used interchangeably. Clear distinctions among these terms exist:
Data: the atomic raw material of human craft. It's the irreducible symbolic level, where alphanumeric encoding allows us to move the raw material about, like so many grains or bags of rice. Data is inert. It is granular. It can be stored and moved about without regard to its meaning.
Information: the meaningful arrangement of data that creates patterns and activates meanings in a person's mind. It's the words, pictures and sounds rather than the grains of data. Information is dynamic. It exists at the point of human perception.
Knowledge: the value-added content of human thought, derived from perception and intelligent manipulation of information. Knowledge transcends; it exists uniquely in the mind of an individual thinker. It is the basis for intelligent action.
While working with these distinctions, we must accept the fact that the term "information" has become the generic label for all three. So, it's still the information quality revolution, even though it involves three levels of "information."
From the standpoint of methodology, we will need a whole new set of models, methods and tools for revolutionizing the quality of information in our businesses. Based on the distinctions between data, information and knowledge, at least five critical points of focus come to mind for organizing the attack (see Figure 1).
Data logistics. This is probably the first aspect of information quality that occurs to the technology people. It includes the physical equipment, software and infrastructure for storing, copying, transmitting, receiving, distributing and generally managing data. However, this also includes information in paper form, magnetic and other media, and "specimen" form, e.g., unique originals such as physical prototypes, designs or other one-of-a-kind expressions.
Data protection. This includes everything necessary to safeguard information from loss, destruction, theft, tampering or sabotage. Examples include physical security, electronic security and employee work practices, as well as policies that protect the privacy of customer information and intellectual property.
Information behavior. This encompasses what human beings do in working with data and information. It includes recording information either manually or by computer; looking up information from various sources; converting information by means such as copying or transcribing, paraphrasing, summarizing or interpreting; getting information from others; and providing information to others, either face-to-face, by telephone or electronically.
Information design. This means using software and other tools to create new information and knowledge by transforming source information into meaningful form. It includes using tools like word processors, databases, spreadsheets, graphic design tools, presentation aids, Web pages and online forms.
Knowledge creation. This is the human skill of drawing insights and conclusions from existing information. It also includes inventing new things, conceptualizing new ideas, conceiving new strategies, building new models and rethinking existing beliefs.
Some of these quality dimensions are more susceptible to direct attack than others. It may be easier to design a "firewall" to protect the firm's computer data from saboteurs than to ensure that customer-contact employees give customers complete and accurate information. But should we try to judge one more important than the other? It may be easier to implement practices to safeguard customer information than to encourage employees to think of new ways to sell. But both deserve attention and improvement.
This star-shaped model of information quality suggests a kind of spectrum ranging from the more concrete systems and practices to the more esoteric behavioral and cognitive dimensions. It also makes it obvious that the information quality problem is far too big to fit into any one function on the organization chart--certainly not the information technology department. Many firms mistakenly misconstrue the information quality issue as a "computer problem." To paraphrase a very old maxim, information quality assurance is much too important to be left to the information technology people. We must remind them that digital data is not the only kind, by far.
We will need to secularize and democratize the information quality issue. It must belong to everybody. For example, one of the personal skills needed by employees in the new world of work will be information quality awareness. A simple form of information behavior is remembering to tell somebody something, or following through on an assigned task without being reminded. Information behavior also includes managing work priorities and keeping records needed in performing a job.
At the level of any particular business, if the organization's leaders want to commit seriously to information quality assurance, what are the typical steps in launching a program? A typical organizational initiative involves four phases that recycle upon one another.
Assessment. Identifying critical information quality problems and opportunities involves a systematic review and analysis of all key business processes, including employee information behavior, identifying high-cost or high-volume activities, and estimating the cost of information quality.
Prioritizing change. Selecting the information quality problems and opportunities that represent the greatest payoff for the resources required to deal with them may include computer systems, process flows, work practices and employee needs for skill development.
Redesign and re-education. Changing the systems, processes and practices, as well as teaching the people who use them to capitalize on improvements, may also present opportunities to reengineer systems and processes for other reasons, such as production efficiencies and cycle-time reduction. Many interventions will involve employee participation as well as training and indoctrination to support new patterns of information behavior.
Reintegration. Smoothing out the seams and boundaries between the various improved business processes and systems is the never-ending process of streamlining, simplifying and integrating processes and behaviors to align them ever more closely to the business mission.
The case for action
The real costs imposed on any nation's economy by defective information and faulty information processes are, of course, ultimately unknowable. But common sense and everyday experience tell us they must be colossal. In this much-touted information age, improving the quality and reducing the costs of information is one of our last unexploited opportunities to significantly increase the return on business assets, both physical and human. As we come to better understand the operation of any business organization as an information enterprise and recognize the emerging roles of people as knowledge professionals, we surely must seek ways to make them more effective and productive. Those organizations that take advantage of the opportunity could be rewarded handsomely. And there seems to be little to lose.
About the author
Karl Albrecht is a management consultant, futurist, speaker and prolific author.
As chairman of Karl Albrecht International, he oversees the practical application of his concepts through a consulting firm (Albrecht Consulting Group), a training firm (Albrecht Training & Development) and a publishing company (Albrecht Publishing Co.).
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