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IMS5023 : Information Enterprise Management and Marketing



Week 9

ISSUES IN INFORMATION COMMUNITIES

 

 

References

Davenport, Thomas H. with Prusak, Laurence. (1997). Information ecology: Mastering the information and knowledge environment. New York: Oxford University Press.

Robbins, Stephen P. & Barnwell, Neil S. (1994). Organisation theory in Australia. 2nd ed. Sydney: Prentice Hall of Australia.


1. What is 'Information for Accountability'

In the Information Communities Model we defined 'information for accountability' as 'communication to minimise risk'. Accountability information is generally of an evidential nature to operate it must very quickly be embodied in a documentary form, that can later (if needed) be produced to prove that something was done, or that a particular situation existed at a specified time.

This is a complex area, perhaps not as easily grasped as 'information for pleasure' or 'information for awareness'. To give a rounded explanation of what is meant we need to consider some further models drawn from organisation theory. The starting point is an Information Flows Model, a teaching model developed by Don Schauder, relating closely to concepts in Robbins and Barnwell (1994). This model seeks to give an overview of (among other things) the role of Information for Accountability among the information flows of organisations and other information communities.

2. A preliminary note on the concept of 'environment' in organisation theory, and on techniques for environmental analysis

Organisation theory has long recognised the strong impact of the environment on organisations and organisational structures. Environment is widely considered to be the most important factor in determining structure. The Macquarie Dictionary defines 'environment' as 'the aggregate of surrounding things, conditions, or influences.'

No organisation or information community is an island unto itself, but rather one element in a complex network of dynamic interacting forces. Organisational growth and survival depends on the organisation's ability to respond quickly and appropriately to demands from its environment. Each organisation has multiple environments, depending upon which factors are being considered. Hence the level of analysis being used needs to be clearly specified.

External environments may be analysed in terms of broad categories of forces (eg technological, political, economic, social), or more specifically in terms of particular bodies and 'stakeholder groups' with whom the organisation interacts. Some examples of particular elements in an organisation's environment include: client groups, suppliers, contractors, distributors, financiers, competitors, collaborators, professional groups, unions, educational institutions, government and legal regulatory bodies, telecommunications companies, computer hardware and software companies.

Information mapping/ communication mapping techniques are used in portraying the flows of information between the focal organisation/ information community and the broader environment. In such diagrams, arrowed lines (one way, two way) are used to indicate information/ communication links between the organisation and particular external parties with which the organisation interacts. Strong and weak links, or frequent and infrequent interaction can be differentiated (eg by thick and thin lines, continuous and broken lines, different shading or colour-coding).

The internal environment can be represented in a number of ways. Organisation charts show the formal flows of information and accountability. A series of such charts is often needed to represent the total structure, eg a broad overview listing major divisions, and a series of separate charts to provide finer detail for individual divisions and organisational units (single business units - SBUs). In current turbulent environments, such structures are subject to constant change. With internal information/communication flows at the individual SBU level, it is useful to identify key internal units with which the particular SBU regularly interacts, and to undertake an information mapping exercise to record these interactions.

Stakeholder analysis is an important area of current management practice. Recognising the mutual interdependence between organisations and their external and internal environments, organisations seeking to maximise their performance outcomes need to ensure they have in place effective communication channels with key stakeholders. Stakeholders are those who have a significant influence on, or who are affected by, the actions of the organisation. Stakeholders may include shareholders, financiers, customers, employees, suppliers, contractors, service providers, government bodies, trade unions, community groups, consumer groups, environmental protection and other action groups, etc. The establishment of trust and ethical business practices are key ingredients in this relationship building. Managing stakeholder relationships effectively is no easy task. Stakeholder relationships are not simply a chain of independent dyadic links, but involve highly complex communities of networks that interact in complex and often unpredictable ways. The interests of different stakeholder groups can be diametrically opposed. In practice, organisations do/ must differentiate between the relative importance of their various stakeholder groups in their decision-making influenced by factors such as the power of stakeholders to impose their will on the organisation, the social acceptability of stakeholders' claims or actions, the overarching profit-drive, legal obligations, or time-urgency pressures.

3. Accountability between Information Communities and their environments

In our Information Flows Model, all information communities are seen to operate in an 'Environment' - labelled Factor (1) in the diagram. Robbins & Barnwell define an environment as the institutions or forces that affect the performance of the organisation but over which the organisation has little or no control. In this discussion the idea of 'organisation' is extended to include a range of looser groupings which we have called information communities. Information flows from the environment are marked with thick arrows and capital letters (A), (B) and (C). These are meant to convey that the impacts of information flows from environment to the information community are very powerful and influential. The return arrows - thinner, and marked with lower case letters (a), (b) and (c) - signify that there are indeed backflows from information community to environment, but these are generally not very influential in their effect on the environment. Information flows from huge, powerful organisations like Microsoft have much more influence on their environment than, say, a local Parents' Association or a one-person consulting business. All social entities have some impact, but in most cases this impact is quite small.

Accountability information flows from information communities to environment

Those information flows (a), (b) and (c) that are actually required of information communities are among the main kinds of information for accountability. Other kinds of information in (a), (b) and (c) through which the information community attempts to influence the environment tend to be self-initiated, and fall into the information for awareness or pleasure category.

For example, if a community group wants to influence government policy on, say, preserving the rain forests, it may target members of parliament or voters with a concerted information-for-awareness campaign through letters, newspaper advertisements, interviews on radio talk-back etc, but these communications are not required of it. However if that community group is constituted as an incorporated association there are communications which are required of it by law. For example Victoria's Associations Incorporation Act (1981) (as amended) requires that specified financial information must be lodged with the Registrar of Incorporated Associations:

(4) The public officer of an incorporated association must, within one month after the date of the annual general meeting of the incorporated association or, if the annual general meeting is not held within the period within which it is required by this section to be held, within one month after the last day of that period, give to the Registrar a statement in the prescribed form--(a) containing the particulars referred to in sub-section (3) ...
For many similar examples, go to the Victorian Legislation and Parliamentary Documents Home Page and browse through the links from Victorian Law Today. You will find that every piece of legislation requires some kind of statutory reporting from the information communities or individuals affected by the legislation. The same would be true if you explore the legislation of any other jurisdiction in Australia State or Commonwealth, or any other country where the rule of law applies.

Sometimes governments set up independent organisations to receive accountability information on behalf of the community. An example is the Medical Practitioners Board of Victoria, established under Part 6 of the Medical Practice Act 1994 (as amended). The Board is a legal entity in its own right and operates at arm's length from government:

(1) There is established a Board to be called the Medical Practitioners Board of Victoria.
(2) The Board--
(a) is a body corporate with perpetual succession; and
(b) has a common seal; and
(c) may sue and be sued in its corporate name; and
(d) may acquire, hold and dispose of real and personal property; and
(e) may do and suffer all acts and things that a body corporate may, by law, do and suffer.
In conducting investigations about the fitness of doctors to be registered as medical practitioners, the Board has authority to require submission of a wide range of accountability information.

Among governmental agencies with special reponsibilities for eliciting accountability information are the Police, the Public Record Office, the Registry of Births, Marriages and Deaths (Department of Justice) and Vicroads. To gain a sense of the range of accountability information required by government it is worth perusing the Victoria government departments' page, and the Maxi page - where a good deal of accountability information required by government (e.g. changes of address) can be provided by the citizen on-line.

At the Commonwealth Government level, particularly important entities requiring accountability information are the Australian Taxation Office and the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC formerly ASC).

Government, and entities authorised by government, are not the only 'environmental' entities that may require accountability from, or provide accountability information to, information communities. Information communities may voluntarily submit themselves to wider groupings, eg a local parish church to its diocese and agree to provide certain forms of accountability information. In turn, that wider grouping may accept a duty to account to its constituent bodies or members.

4. Accountability information flows from environment to information communities

What of the thick arrows going from Factor (1) 'Environment' to Factors (2), (3) and (4) which are internal to the information community? In examining the websites already mentioned in the lecture you will have observed that agencies that have the duty to collect information, often also make some of that information available in the form of information services.

Additionally, in the case of governments, the arrows from 'Environment' (1) to (2), (3) and (4) include the accountability of elected legislators to the citizens who are their voters. The flow of such information crosses over with the concept of 'awareness information' - it is accountability information in the sense that governments are the 'servants' of the citizens, and lessen the risk of being voted of office or challenged in the courts if they keep voters informed of the work of government. An excellent example of this kind of accountability in Victoria is the Parliamentary Documents service which keeps Victorians abreast of proposed laws (Bills), and related documents that are currently under consideration by Parliament. Another valuable form of accountability documentation from Parliament to the people is the online Hansard (same link as Parliamentary Documents), which gives a word-by-word transcription of all the proceedings of the Parliament.

A similar kind of accountability to citizens is provided by the court system. Court cases are conducted in public, and the verbatim proceedings are available for perusal. In Judgment Summaries, Judges explain the reasons for their rulings to anyone interested. The website of the Supreme Court of Victoria deserves a thorough visit.

At the operating level of government departments, feedback services provide a valuable form of accountability information.

Accountability information goes much further than government-related information. In a church, for example, changes to forms of observance or religious rules can be equally fundamental from an accountability point of view. Look at the constitution of the Anglican Church of Australia and note the mutual accountability information flows that are explicitly or implicitly required among the wider organisation and its local communities. The constitution itself is, of course, an accountability document. The Australian Football League's Annual Report, and especially sections like that on the AFL Tribunal represent an accountability information flow between the League and its constituent clubs and members.

Different flows for different aspects

Why do the arrows from Factor (1) 'Environment' go to and from each of Factors (2), (3) and (4)? This is because specific information may not concern every aspect of the way in which an organisation or other information community operates. For example, the VicRoads example of motor vehicle licensing would most likely affect Factor (3) Technologies and Structures, rather than other aspects of an organisation's operations. Information about land usage regulations would mainly affect Factor 2 Aims and strategies. The annual reports of companies required by the Australian Securities and Investment Commission would mostly relate to Factor (4) Assessments of Effectiveness.

5. Accountability within Information Communities

The feedback arrows (d) and (e) represent the main accountability information flows within organisations and other information communities.

The accountability component in the forward arrows (D) and (E) consists of the accountability owed by managers/leaders in an enterprise to their subordinates/followers. This generally consists of planning, policy and procedural information. The Monash Staff Information pages provide many examples of accountability information flowing from management to staff, covering such areas as enterprise bargaining, equal opportunity, performance development and training, and the new SAP-based Integrated Administration System. At a strategic level the University provides not only staff, but also students and other stakeholders with access to its key strategic planning document Monash Directions 2025 - and other key Monash planning documents.

Such accountability information - both strategic and procedural - is represented by arrows (D) and (E), connecting planning (Factor 2 Aims and Strategies) to operations (Factor 3 Technologies and Structures) and evaluation (Factor 4 Assessments of Effectiveness).

The feedback arrows (d) and (e) represent accountability information flows which are equally vital to the well-being of organisations and other information communities. Workflow systems such as Staffware to some degree incorporates such feedback information into their functioning. However for a high quality of feedback it is not just routine accountability feedback information that needs to flow, but also information that deals powerfully with non-routine cases.

6. Assessing organisational effectiveness and the generating of accountability information

Why should organisations collect information about themselves? If there isn't a file on something, it's harder for someone to blame you for it. In the world of Dilbert it makes every kind of sense to avoid accountability through strategies like hiding information and shifting responsibility on to others.

A character in Kurt Vonnegut's (1962) satirical novel, The Sirens of Titan, gives the following advice to an aspiring tycoon.

...right now you're as easy for the Bureau of Internal Revenue to watch as a man on the street corner selling apples and pears. But just imagine how hard you would be to watch if you had a whole office building jammed to the rafters with industrial bureaucrats ­men, who lose things and use the wrong forms and create new forms and demand everything in quintuplicate, and who understand perhaps a third of what is said to them; who habitually give misleading answers in order to gain time in which to think, who make decisions only when forced to, and who then cover their tracks; who make perfectly honest mistakes in addition and subtraction, and who call meetings whenever they feel lonely, who write memos whenever they feel unloved; men who never throw anything away unless they think it could get them fired. A single bureaucrat, if he is sufficiently vital and nervous, should be able to create a ton of meaningless paper per year for the Bureau of Internal Revenue to examine. In the Magnum Opus building, we will have thousands of them! And you and I can have the top two stories, and you can go on keeping track of what's really going on the way you do now.
The quotation illustrates that information flows in organisations can serve to obscure and confuse rather than support and assist. (The obscuring and confusing may not be ­ is probably very seldom ­ deliberate). Whether analogue (paper, print) or digital information media are involved, the individual new employee enters a world where information transfer practices have built up over the years, and where most people take them for granted as the framework of organisational life. The organisational environment is an ecology (see Davenport 1997), with all parts mutually interdependent in some degree. In an organisation, that ecology becomes ever more established and complex through time. A change to any part can affect other parts, often with unforseeable consequences. A new CEO, who enters an information environment with the laudable objective of simplifying and economising on information handling, can sometimes wreak disastrous consequences which afterwards need to be repaired at great cost (eg the attempt to introduce 'scratch tickets' on Victorian public transport a few years back resulted in a welter of confusion and fare evasion).

Usually there are strong negative or positive reasons why an organisation has the information flows that it does. They have been put in place by at some stage either because individuals or groups were seeking to avoid risks to themselves or the organisation, or because they were perceived as beneficial to the organisation in supporting current activities, or creating new business opportunities. As we have noted, accountability information (this Week's theme) concerns the avoidance of riskñso let us focus on that aspect.

Avoiding risk - not getting things wrong, or at least not getting them wrong more than once - is a major reason for the feedback arrows in the Information Flows model. Of all of the components of that model, the functions that relate to Factor 4 (Assessments of Effectiveness) are among the most powerful generators of accountability information. A key Effectiveness question must be: 'What did we do wrong?' Information flows resulting from that question must be eagerly sought by any manager or leader wishing to nip in the bud problems which may lead to significant risk exposure.

However the question, 'What did we do wrong?' - like most other questions about organisational effectiveness - is not an easy one.

Robbins & Barnwell (1994) deal with this factor in Chapter 3.

They distinguish between four major approaches to assessing organisational effectiveness:

i) The goal attainment approach or model: an organisation's effectiveness must be judged by ends attained rather than by means used. (p.50)

ii) The systems approach or model: end goals are not ignored, but they are only one element.' Others are the organisation's capacity: 'to acquire resources, maintain itself internally as a social organisation and interact successfully with its external environment.' (p.53)

iii) The strategic-constituencies approach or model: an effective organisation is one that satisfies the demands of those constituencies [ie groups or individuals] in its environment from which it requires support for its continued existence.' (p.56). Example: CRA's failure to accommodate the demands of landowners in New Guinea.

iv) The competing-values approach or model: 'the criteria you value and use in assessing an organisation's effectiveness - return on investment, market share, new-product innovation, job security - depend on who you are and the interests you represent; shareholders, unions, suppliers, management or internal specialists in marketing, personnel, production or accounting may evaluate ...effectiveness entirely differently.' (pp.60-61)

Robbins and Barnwell provide a diagram to illustrate the competing-values model. Consider it carefully.

They then proceed to combine all four models in one integrated diagram. Again - this one requires careful study.

From this diagram they derive a mapping space to compare the effectiveness of different organisations. Have a go at this one too!

To think about and discuss:
  • Why do Robbins & Barnwell emphasise 'information' in relation to the Internal-Process Approach, but not the other approaches?
  • For each of the four models, what kinds of accountability information might be required to demonstrate that effectiveness is being achieved? Which Factors in our initial Information Flows diagram might be affected?

Professor Don Schauder

 

PREPARATION FOR WEEK 10 TUTORIAL

Using our Information Flows Model, consider a  'stakeholder group' or 'strategic constituency' of a particular information community: in this case parents of children in a school
i) Suggest what roles parents play in each 'Factor' box in the diagram - boxes (1) to (4)?
ii) Give three examples of 'information for accountability' flows in which they participate?




 
Tom Denison