My first hypothesis is this: organizations consist of patterns of information flowing from one person to another, one group to another, and one division to another. Creating information, transmitting information, storing and retrieving information, allocating information, apprehending information, analyzing information and finally, of course, making decisions – these are what organizations do.
An important portion of the information of interest is coded in routines, sequences of acts to be performed in a more or less consistent order. So it is important to deepen our understanding of what it means to say that information is the stuff of routines.
That leads to my second hypothesis: It is important to distinguish among varieties of information, for the specifications of the routines in the broadest sense of the term create the intricate interplay of interactions needed to maintain the organization from minute to minute, just as the routines of the tissues in our bodies maintain the organization necessary for life to go on in us.
Producers of Hard Goods and of Information – the Core is the Same
A caution at the outset: Remember that Information can be observed in organizations in two aspects, as product and as process. It is important to distinguish between the two and to be clear about which one I am introducing here.
For some organizations, information is the main product. Many government agencies, for example, are information producers. I think of police departments, the State Department and CIA, the Census Bureau, the Patent Office or the Department of Commerce. In the private sector we also find companies producing information-as-product. Examples include advertising agencies, newspapers, software companies, accounting and law firms, architects, pattern-makers, and so forth.
For other kinds of organizations, in contrast, the products are tangible things. A steel mill, for example, produces ingots or rolled stock. A textile company produces cloth. Producing tangible things requires using energy to combine materials into things that can be bought, sold, transported, used up, and thrown out into landfills.
But for both kinds organizations information of a different kind is what guides the patterns of action that determine the organizations’ existence. That is the core type, information-as-process, the glue that holds operations together. This kind of information is present and is continually being created in the patterns of interaction and the rules for processes. It is fundamental to all organizations.
People use this kind of information to create the on-going structure and activities of the organization, whatever its product: the patterns of information sharing – the reports, directives, conversations, files, designs, specifications, accounting, meetings, SOPs, unwritten rules, culture, and routines of action – that make up the way the organization patterns its work to maintain homeostasis over time.
For an analysis of how organizations work, we can ignore the category of information-as-product and focus entirely on the information-as-process, determining action to be taken.
Information Creates Organization
In this sense, information is the main element of creating and maintaining all organizational structures. The offices on any organizational chart really represent a map of groups that both perform action sequences and receive and transmit information, and the arrows between one and the next really are maps of information flows.
And that is the sense in which I want to introduce the idea of information as the basic process that results in the structure as well as the functions of an organization.1
How Can We Describe Information?
If only we knew more about information! Perhaps then we could increase our abilities to influence organizational change?
But so far only a few scientists have reflected on information as a topic in its own right. This is especially true for studies of organizations. Rather than write an extended critique of organizational theory to date, though, I will simply introduce here the possibility of understanding information in a broader sense than most writers about organizations have.
What can we say about principles and traits common to information of all types, and then what can we infer from those principles about what enables the organization of effort by groups. Going a step further, what can we say about how to observe and classify this kind of information? And will this work enable us to discern effects that we have not noticed previously across many kinds of systems.
Not Information Systems as Commonly Described for Management
Understandably, most writers about organizations are concerned with improving management. For that reason, descriptions of information systems and types of communications have typically focused on how to be a good manager. They have categorized various types of communications by purpose or function in achieving effective management.
One typical example is titled “Types of Information Systems in an Organization.” 2 Here author Julie Davoren divides corporate communications into four types: Transaction Processing Systems, Customer Relationship Management Systems, Business Intelligence Systems, and Knowledge Management Systems. I have no quarrel with her analysis; it is addressed to certain problems her audience may have, and it provides useful information for them.
But what I am seeking is not efficiency or effective management. I am concerned with why so many organizations have been unable to change course in the face of threats to human civilization.
Seeking Common Characteristics of Information
So I am introducing a novel way of understanding the fundamental building blocks of human organization, and thereby advancing our ability to facilitate change. For that, we must consider all kinds of communication and information in the broadest sense – history, culture, money, laws, property, filing systems, codes, patterns, blueprints, memories, marketing and advertising, to name a few – in one category and seek to discern the features common to all.
Could all information exhibit some universal characteristics, and could they be enumerated in laws as scientists have enumerated laws of energy? Could there be ways in which one kind of information can be transformed into another – as with energy, when motion is transformed into electricity?