I would be surprised if anyone in human history has ever turned to a CIO and said, “You’re doing a great job of managing our information.”
And yet there is no “technology” in the CIO’s title. One would think the reason it disappears after someone has been appointed from the IT manager ranks is because they have become more strategic than merely making sure hardware and software runs as it should. But even “information management” is a dismal-sounding discipline. It calls to mind a vast warehouse where information is pushed from one enormous pile into a more conveniently-located pile when needed, a place that’s pretty full but kept neat enough that you can find things. Efficient but dull. Hardly an inspiring career path.
Which is why “The Elusive Big Idea,” by Neal Gabler in the New York Times a few weeks ago was an inspiration of sorts. Gabler blames an increasingly visual culture, the retreat of universities from public life and other factors for what he calls a “post-idea” culture, where we spend more time trying to be in the know (“Where are you going? What are you doing? Whom are you seeing? These are today’s big questions,” he points out) than coming up with theories or hypothesis that give real insight.
“In the past, we collected information not simply to know things. That was only the beginning. We also collected information to convert it into something larger than facts and ultimately more useful — into ideas that made sense of the information,” Gabler writes. “We sought not just to apprehend the world but to truly comprehend it, which is the primary function of ideas. Great ideas explain the world and one another to us.”
Technology has given us access to something a million times greater than the lost library of Alexandria but not a plan on how to best use it. In the corporate world we tend to look at business intelligence or other analytical software to identify trends or patterns – similar pieces of information, really – while hoping someone else, the CEO perhaps, will experience the Eureka moment.
If IT departments want to reposition themselves in the organization, consider moving from information management to idea management. The latter not only means with coming up with ways of getting to important truths but empowering others to do the same. It might be a bit similar to the way Seth Godin recently described the ideal librarian of the future. It’s the difference between saying you want to focus on innovation and actually having an innovative idea that changes the way you interact with the world, the way you improve the quality of life for your customers, employees, friends and family.
Great use of technology facilitates communication between people and captures what would otherwise be forgotten or lost. It allows us to express what we’re thinking in multiple ways. It gives us greater perspective because it taps into more people than we can talk to in order to answer an important question. Idea management doesn’t mean behaving like an esoteric intellectual but it could mean offering a higher level of strategic insight than what is common in the enterprise today. And it definitely would mean a lot more fun for whoever gets to do it.