arrow on a road pointing in two directions
PHOTO: Kyle Glenn

One year ago AIIM (the Association of Intelligent Information Management) surveyed its members, asking what grade they'd give for our collective attempts at information management. The response? 'C' — an indictment of our decades of effort to get information management taken seriously.

AIIM released its latest report a few weeks ago to align with its AIIM 2022 conference in Denver. Even if you are not a member, you can pick up the "State of the Information Management Industry" here.

This year’s report builds on many of the findings in last year's report. A major factor in the C grade last year was the fact that there are still very few organizations where a senior executive is given the enterprise level responsibility for information — for generating or gathering it, for managing it, for ensuring it is kept or disposed of appropriately, etc. Does this perhaps resonate with you?

I know of at least a few organizations that have an enterprise-level leader, a true Chief Information Officer, if you will. These organizations are quite advanced in their management, use and derivation of value from their information, and remain few and far between. So AIIM drew some conclusions from last year’s report that it took forward into this year’s research and the questions it asked of membership, to see if we could discover how we might actually move our industry and our support of our organizations forward.

Information Management Is All About the Customer

The fundamental difference between organizations stuck in status quo and those that have made some progress is a shift in mindset to focus on the customer. Now I should stress, in this view the customer could be an external consumer of products or services or an internal one. In other words, depending on the context, if you are in information management at a bank, the customer could be Joe Blogger logged on at home, using a mobile app or who has come into a branch to ask about his credit card, or it could be Jane Doe who is behind the counter in said branch, taking the call in the Call Center, or working from home answering Joe's email. We could be very granular about this, and say there is an ultimate difference between customer and employee experience, but the point is, they can both be the recipient of information and information based services that provide value.

And there it is, the V word ....

Clearly our information management efforts should be focused on supporting the business and on supporting the business processes that generate value for the customer.

I am certain a good amount of you are reading this and saying “well duh!” (hopefully to yourselves and not out loud). However, while I think we would all admit that we did not get into information management for the sake of simply managing information, many of us may have been sucked into the dark side of explaining to all who will listen that to do a good job of information management is to do a good job of managing risk.

AIIM President Peggy Winton doubled down on this point in her opening keynote. Focusing on risk, compliance and managing information simply to avoid issues and potential penalties does not really add business value to an organization. As the report puts it, information management focused on risk and compliance is not going to “move the needle” for the business.

I don’t see a huge gap between these two views, rather it's more of two sides to the same coin. But I acknowledge it might take the right executives, business leaders and information management professionals to see it that way in the context of any given organization (I will come back to this).

All in all, information management professionals would do well to focus on information management activities that help the business generate revenue, not simply on reducing risk or increasing efficiency, but on tangible customer-focused business benefits. The closing keynote of the conference was a panel of five of the six Certified Information Professionals who provided input to the report. This panel discussed some of the ways their organizations have started to move the needle by focusing on the real value good information management can generate.

Sounds good? We're all going to focus on the customer and start using information to generate tons of value. Done and done. No?

Related Article: Information Governance Is Boring, But Necessary

The Information Governance Dichotomy

I agree with both the findings of the report and with Winton's assertion that customer focus is the key. However I also think it’s not that simple. One thing that surprised me at the AIIM conference was the number of attendees who were Records Managers or who had aligned job titles, the number of vendors with records management- or information governance-related products to demo, and the number of sessions that addressed these two topics.

Herein lies the dichotomy. While we talk about moving away from selling the benefits of information management by hanging on the coattails of risk and compliance, an awful lot of attendees wanted to talk about, well, risk and compliance.

There's no easy way to get away from talking about risk and compliance in highly regulated industries. And in many of these industries, information remains a key product for managing risk and for illustrating compliance to the industry regulators or government agencies. There seems to be a common view that if you concentrate on adding value (making money) but screw up on compliance, you may get fined by the regulator, but it will work out because you can pay the fine from all that money you are making. What this doesn't consider is the reputational risk of your fine being splashed all over the internet, and the resultant loss of customers, revenue and market value (if publicly traded).

Information professionals need to work with their business partners to find the right balance for their organization's context. For example, for a Nuclear Power Utility company the internal customer for information-based services would need to concentrate on compliance with safety regulations and operational efficiency. For a large retail chain, the focus would be on deriving insights from information on customer behaviors to generate more sales.

Related Article: What the Next Few Years Hold for Enterprise Content Management 

A Complementary Approach to Information Management

However, if we think of the customer focused and risk centric approaches as two sides of the same coin, we can make the information management magic happen by considering both sides of the coin together. Perhaps an initiative driven by compliance requirements can also benefit the revenue generating line of business? Or the customer-focused information management project for a business unit can have positive side effects for records management?

information management

It is up to us as information management professionals to work across boundaries, to help bring multi-disciplinary teams together, to build bridges, mend fences, and to use every other well-abused trope to help our organizations meet their business objectives. If you cannot develop an information management strategy that is completely in line with organizational strategy at the highest level, via an executive sponsor, then aim lower, at the business unit, operating group or even specific team level. Information management professionals should work hard to understand the business, find the subject matter experts and make the right connections. Understand your business partners' objectives, and if risk and compliance are unimportant to them, go with the flow. But at the same time, keep the lines of communication open to the records managers and other information governance professionals, and see if you can make the magic happen.

In the end, good information management should service the customer, but also the other stakeholders by enabling both value generation and good governance. Make yourself indispensable by becoming a sought after enabler, who can bring information management expertise to bear on the problem, whatever it is.