Choo, C.W. Information Management for the Intelligent Organization

Information Management for the Intelligent Organisation: The Art of Scanning the Environment, American Society for Information Science/Information Today, Medford, NJ, USA, 1995. 255 pp, US $35

A few years ago I did some work for an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), helping to set up an environmental scanning unit. I can still remember the surprise I felt when I discovered that the EPA, whose main business explicitly related to the external environment was, in essence, inward-looking. That is, its own strategic planning was mainly internal and programatic; it had no systematic means of scanning external phenomena, deriving judgements and integrating these into its work. In this regard it was like very many organisations and companies: strong internal view, weak external one. Given the dynamism of the world system (let alone the global problematique and defective economics) this imbalance seemed unwise – a reflection, perhaps, of an earlier, simpler age when organisations could indeed be run on ‘gut’ instinct, charisma and the judicious use of power.

So I tracked down some material about environmental scanning (ES) published a decade or more ago. Sure enough, there were indeed the starting points for tracking a new field: elementary rationales, simple concepts and basic methods. Some writers had even integrated ES into other, more broadly-referenced works. Here was evidence of an emergent discipline; one that was logically close to futures studies. And that was the limit of my understanding – until a colleague happened to mention the book under review. I acquired the book, sight unseen, from a ‘virtual’ internet ‘bookshop’ and hurriedly read a few chapters in preparation for an interstate leadership seminar. My first thoughts were along the lines of ‘it’s a bit dense’ and ‘do I have time for this?’ But I am very glad I found the book because it genuinely opens up ES in a thorough and systematic way.

The book has at least three key strengths. First, it has considerable breadth and employs a very impressive range of sources. Second, it handily summarises a wealth of relevant research into the uses and value of applying ES. Third, the focus throughout is on implementation. In other words, this is no academic treatise. Rather, it is a detailed handbook which locates ES in the broader frames of information management and organisational learning, then shows, step by step, how it can be applied. Nearly everyone who has written on organisations gets a mention (Senge, Drucker and the rest). But the book does not fall into the familiar ‘management’ mode of reinventing various wheels with minor modifications. It is both more substantive than most management books I have seen and also more applied in its overall focus.

Chapter 1 profiles the ‘intelligent’ organisation and suggests that this ‘depends more on the development and deployment of intellectual resources than on the management of physical and fiscal assets’ (p 9). A key concept is ‘single-, and double-loop learning’. The former serves to ‘increase organizational effectiveness within existing norms’ (p 15) and is clearly the dominant mode in use. Double-loop learning deals with deeper issues of organisational norms, assumptions and embedded strategies. I was also interested to see that the ‘intelligence/learning cycle’ (sensing, memory, perception, interpretation and adaptive behaviour) included the fourth term: interpretation, since I have long felt that the latter was a key non-technical, high-order skill, that was centrally applicable to this field, as to futures studies. Chapter 2 presents a process model of information management which covers: information needs, acquisition, organization and storage, products and services, distribution, and use. The main message of the chapter is that ‘ organizational information structures and processes must be as flexible, energetic and permeable as the process of human enquiry and decision making that they are supporting’ (p 50).

Chapter 3 looks at managers as information users and presents a range of relevant research which profiles their commonly employed preferences, needs and practices. Chapters 4 and 5 are outstanding. The first considers ES as ‘strategic organizational learning’. It distinguishes between several different kinds of external scanning and presents a wealth of research on experiences and applications. The other profiles a number of corporations from several countries that have used and evaluated the role of ES. It is here that we discover the pay-off. For example: ‘information derived from environmental scanning is increasingly being used to drive the strategic planning process by business and public sector organizations in most developed countries. Research evidence shows that environmental scanning is linked with improved organizational performance’ (p 101). Similarly, ‘there is much to suggest that environmental scanning and business intelligence is the vital key to the strategic success of Japanese organisations in the international arena’ (p 123).

Chapters 6 and 7 look in more depth at ‘managing information sources’ and ‘scanning on the information highway’. Both contain much accumulated wisdom, drawn from practice, about the detailed administration of such information systems. The latter makes it quite clear that the internet has proved itself to be highly effective information resource when used skilfully. Finally, chapter 8 ‘learning to be intelligent’ is a well-crafted summary of the whole book which underscores many of the concepts and principles given earlier. One point which is repeated for emphasis is that information management is not just an disembodied function carried out by remote experts. Ideally, it should involve everyone. Thus: ‘knowledge creation is everyone’s concern, and not the responsibility of a specialized few’ (p 184).

The book is clearly written, carefully indexed and copiously referenced. Overall, it must be regarded as a classic of its kind for it brings together a widely-scattered wealth of materials and from these weaves a clear and balanced exposition. As we head into the so called ‘knowledge era’, the ‘digital economy’ and the rest, we will all need books like this one to re-orient our practices and perceptions.