Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Minotaur: We Must Not Be Driven by IT

Ray Lester says IT is not just a tool in an information strategy.

We must not be driven by IT. IT is just a tool. We should be formulating information strategies, not IT strategies.

Information Technology (IT) is nowadays such a critical and fundamentally different vehicle for information handling than heretofore that all organisations must have an explicit, coherent and comprehensive strategy for its future use. IT is not simply a tool; it has the power to transform your business. And YES, indeed, if that business especially revolves around information and communication–as does the whole of the education business–that business in the future will and should be driven by IT.

By continuing to view the IT function as secondary–even marginal–to the business, organisational leaders run the risk, at best, of their IT people aimlessly driving around the old part of town; at worst, of them haring off in a bullet-proof Ferrari down some self-constructed highway in completely the wrong direction.

Further, such relegation can easily be compounded by those who advise the creation of organisational information strategies, without–in parallel–fully taking the technology into account. Consultants patronisingly say to institutional managers: “The key thing is to make sure that the technology does not run away with itself. Computers and networks and so on are actually rather complicated, Sir. But do not worry, we will shield you from the complexities. Our friends in the computing department will deliver what we need as and when you and I have together decided the information strategy we will adopt for your institution. We cannot have these IT people telling us what to do and in the process wasting lots of money on inappropriate technology.”

Nonsense! Vice-chancellors and all others charged with running organisations must have a sufficient understanding of the technology for there to be a real proactive partnership between technology and mission. They must realise that the IT industry–driven in turn by the demands of the entertainment and leisure industries–is creating a fundamentally new technological landscape through which vehicles will drive with a speed and reach previously unheard of. Non-technologists need to grasp enough of the basics of the new communication and information technological environment to make properly informed decisions on strategy so that they are then confident to put IT into the driving seat. To continue with the driving metaphor, managers need to ask their IT people such things as: “How good are the roads around here? Do they need just a little re-surfacing and regular maintenance? Or do we need a completely new transport system? [network] Do we have enough support services located at optimal positions across the system? Do we have too many–dissipating our efforts at too many service points? [servers] What about the vehicles? Are they becoming obsolete technology, or will they be good for a few years yet? Do we have enough vehicles? Are they easy to drive? [networked desktop computers] Are all the places we need to get to already well connected? Can people get to us easily and quickly? [LANs/MANs/WANs] Who is responsible for drawing the map and keeping it up-to-date? Who makes and locates the signposts? Is there just one standard map and set of related signposts? Or several which need cross-checking and inter-connecting? [metadata] …and so on.

Of course, you may well feel such a characterisation to be far-fetched, even farcical, and I could easily agree with you. But the underlying point is not. If information strategists and IT strategists are brought together early in the process of information strategy making and persuaded to talk about the technology and where it is going, it is surprising how far you can get. Suddenly, everyone is talking about and understanding enough of ATM, Novell/NT, Windows 98, Z39.50, Java/ActiveX, Dublin Core, SQL Server, ORDMS, Intranet, Apple, Unix, Netscape/Internet Explorer etc.–to name just a few of my own organisation’s current preoccupations. (However, it is admittedly still easy for the apparently most straightforward of terminology to confuse. When the other day, I wrote in an internal document that “we must tie-in any re-cabling for a new data network with that for a new voice network”, some senior managers thought that by the latter I meant the Museum’s tannoy system!)

So: IT these days must be the driver of information strategy. But that does not mean that IT will determine where your organisation is ultimately driven to. Having properly identified and understood the technological possibilities, at the micro level we can then ask such questions as: “Who is doing the navigating? The passengers themselves? Trained information specialists such as librarians, information scientists and so on?” and at the macro level, a question like: “Who decides who can go where on the network, and how is that implemented with the technology? Are there destinations which are out-of-bounds to certain people, or routes that only buses and taxis can go down? Who makes sure that what we need will be still existing and preserved when we get there?”

Senior decision makers within the higher education sector–and in all other sectors still clinging to an outdated concept–must consign to the bin the model which says: first, you decide what you want to do with information; only then do you decide what technology to use. The great policy issues those framing organisational information strategies must grapple with have not changed since the time of the Greeks. What has changed is that for the first time in history we have technology available which could enable us to resolve those issues in practice. Thus the ‘informational age’[1] can decide whether to make information instantly available to all, can decide whether access to such information will be free of transactional charge, can decide whether to recompense directly the owners of intellectual property contributed to the net, can decide whether to reduce the inequalities of information access, for instance, between those who inhabit the back streets of Hackney, and those who stride across the playing-fields of Eton, and so on.

But we can only organise society’s affairs to make such decisions, if indeed IT is the driver!


[1] The phrase used by Manuel Castells in his excellent ‘The rise of the network society’ (Blackwells Publishers, 1996). I am grateful to Lorcan Dempsey, UKOLN for drawing my attention to this book.

Author Details

Ray Lester
Head of Department
Library and Information Services
Natural History Museum
Cromwell Road
London SW7 5BD