Improve Decisions Through Information Proficiency

Are you a novice, experimenter or innovator? Here's a paradigm designed to help you and your agency improve decision-making.

by / March 31, 1996
Improving decision-making is the greatest challenge in and around government today.

The stakeholders are diverse. One decision can affect the public, other levels of government and government contractors.

The issues are the most crucial of our time -- public safety; economic vitality; individual opportunity; the scope and quality of governmental services; and re-balancing the roles of private sector, public sector, and individual initiative throughout society.

Some decisions are reduced to a science and automated -- the calculation of Social Security payments, for example. Other decisions, such
as whether and how to overhaul income taxation, remain a seemingly artless art.

Yet the art and the science fall on a single spectrum of process maturity. And knowledge of that spectrum provides a vital key to organizational and personal success.

Consider the evolution of an executive branch agency's dealing with legislative hearings. A new agency is likely a Novice that muddles chaotically through its preparation for a hearing. Much of the work will be wasted. Perhaps none of the constituents -- the public, legislators, witnesses, the chief executive and agency staff -- will be satisfied with the results.

After struggling through a number of hearings the agency becomes an Experimenter, choosing from partly defined processes for collecting information and drafting testimony.

Through enough attention to process, the agency graduates to be an Implementer with well-tested procedures for working with legislative staff members to understand the nature of a hearing, deciding what testimony to present, anticipating questions and rehearsing answers. But even this behavior is still reactive.

An Innovator treats hearings in the broader context of working continuously with the public and legislature to develop needed changes in governance.

Of course, trade associations, businesses and individuals face the same challenges and opportunities in dealing with legislative hearings. The Novice treats preparation as a scarcely explored art backed by little science. For the Innovator, it is a science backed by well-practiced artistry. No matter what one's maturity stage, success can be enhanced by understanding and improving one's proficiency.

More generally, each of us -- as a concerned citizen, governmental leader, employee, or supplier -- wants to help improve governmental decisions. Just as for businesses and community groups, the products of governments today are decisions and implementations. Contributing relevant information and good ideas is essential, but not enough. We need to improve processes too.

Organizations do take steps to improve their procedures. Techniques such as Business Process Reengineering and Total Quality Management come to mind. But many key governmental and societal decisions are made using Novice and Experimenter behavior for which these techniques may not apply well. Is there a more comprehensive paradigm?

The above-mentioned four process-maturity steps are derived from the information proficiency paradigm, which focuses attention on proficiency with information to make decisions and proficiency through information to communicate and implement decisions.

This paradigm was originally developed to fill in the once-missing gap in the now-complete continuum of key Information-Age issues faced by today's organizations: setting goals and achieving results, enhancing information proficiency, managing information as a resource, deploying information systems and benefiting from technology.

Information proficiency has one root in information resources management and another in proficiency to make decisions, thereby setting goals, and to implement decisions, thereby accomplishing people's jobs and organizations' missions. The paradigm arose in 1989 as the theme underlying the mission of the U.S. General Services Administration's Information Resources Management Service (IRMS), a group spearheading acquisition and deployment of $20 billion of technology and services per year. IRMS stated its mission as "To help clients achieve information proficiency."

The process-maturity spectrum forms the heart of an informa-
tion proficiency measurement and enhancement program that any organization or individual can use to find and capture its most important improvement opportunities. For any one type of decision, an organization or person falls in one of five categories: Novice, Experimenter, Implementer, Innovator, or Master -- the fifth stage focusing on optimal re-use of lessons learned.

Understanding one's current and needed maturity is key to targeting the right opportunities for improvement and selecting appropriate change-effecting techniques.

For example, a Novice makes a decision in an ad hoc manner, inventing the process along the way. Improving Novice behavior depends on personal leadership, visioning, coaching, fostering champions and communication.

An Experimenter makes a decision using one of several partly repeatable processes. Improvement can feature process design, pilot projects, prototype automation, testing alternatives, and the previous techniques.

An Implementer makes a decision, no matter how difficult, by following a well-tested path. Process reengineering, formal automation and quality management are appropriate for Implementers.

An Innovator makes a decision in a broad context and continually improves decision-making processes to encompass broader concepts. Corporate-wide knowledge-bases and cross-functional partnerships may be key to Innovator behavior.

Ideally, for an important decision, an organization is a Master that uses the broadest applicable context, the right information and an optimal process -- and that makes maximal re-use of the knowledge gained while making the decision. However, even for automated decisions, there are far too few Masters today.

Generally, enhancing information proficiency depends on being aware of current behavior and making concerted efforts to improve. An organization can target progress within an information-proficiency stage; for example, an Implementer can adopt statistical process control to measure and enhance quality. Or, an organization can pursue a jump between stages. For example, hiring suitable consulting expertise can catalyze a jump from Novice to Experimenter or Experimenter to Implementer. Deploying comprehensive automation can be the key for a move from Novice or Experimenter to Implementer.

One federal agency's staff managed the finances of projects and programs using an Implementer-stage legacy computer system. Finding it difficult to make timely decisions and cumbersome to correct the computerized data, various employee groups developed Experimenter-stage procedures on desktop computers.

This step backwards on the maturity scale highlighted the need for change. Management sponsored a process-reengineering and systems-development project that produced effective Implementer-stage desktop automation, while leaving the legacy system unchanged.

Or, one corporation that designs, manufactures and sells high tech-nology products improved its operations database from Implementer to Innovator stage. Using the information, the enterprise significantly reduced the average time between receipt of a customer's order and receipt of payment for the products manufactured and provided to fulfill the order. Also, empowered employees throughout the company developed innovative techniques that improved many aspects of corporate operations.

The information-proficiency maturity spectrum also provides a vital analytic tool for understanding marketplaces and marketing.

For example, consider the 4 percent of the United States' gross domestic product spent on health care administration. Anyone who copes with insurance reimbursements knows that health care administration exhibits Novice and Experimenter behavior. Some people conjecture that Implementer behavior would reduce costs by 25 percent -- a full 1 percent of the gross domestic product. While such has not yet happened, people are beginning to expect Innovator health care administration, namely quality administration that contributes to quality care. With demand significantly ahead of supply on the information-proficiency maturity spectrum, it is little wonder that both governments and businesses view health care administration as an attractive opportunity.

Another marketplace change is occurring with the Internet. Previously, Novice and Experimenter techniques satisfied the demands of researchers and academics. Electronic commerce, however, demands at least Implementer-stage technology.

Or, recall that in the mid 1980s personal computer data management software packages were seen as Novice or Experimenter by many corporate information systems groups that were working hard to maintain Implementer-stage mainframe database applications. Desktop computer database software therefore did not sell particularly well to systems departments; however, Experimenter technology was well-received by field staff who kept records and understood themselves to be Novices or Experimenters in records management.

As these examples demonstrate, the information-proficiency maturity spectrum provides practical insight into opportunities throughout the Information Age continuum of determining and accomplishing organizational and even societal goals, making and implementing decisions, managing information resources, implementing systems and selecting technology. The information-proficiency paradigm provides a vital key to organizational and personal success in the Information Age.

Dr. Thomas J. Buckholtz is a management and marketplace consultant in Portola Valley near San Francisco, author of "Information Proficiency: Your Key to the Information Age" (Van Nostrand Reinhold), and former U.S. General Services Administration Commissioner.

For more information, contact Dr. Buckholtz at 415/854-7111 or .