Information is political. Controlling information can be power. Careers can
be significantly impacted based on the perception of data results. People earn
the living by simply being data creators. Failure to recognize these situations
can be career limiting for the naive IS professional. Companies, departments,
and individuals all have the potential to create different political structures
to protect and control the management of their information assets. Thomas
Davenport, Robert Eccles, and Lawerence Prusak in their Fall 1992 Sloan
Management Review paper entitled, Information Politics, sited some useful
examples of various political information structures:
- Heavy focus on information modeling and categorization of data
- High value on emerging hardware utilization
- Attempting to address an organization's entire information
In this situation, the IS Department views itself as owning the data.
- Everyone must fend for his or her self
- High usage of individual personal computers
- Very limited data sharing
Here, each employee considers his or her stash of data as a personal
- Information controlled by each individual department
- Only limited information reported outside
- Unique data vocabulary
In this case, data is tightly controlled within the department, and carefully
reported outside the department.
- Information management rules dictated by one executive
- Control over information highly centralized
This can be viewed as a larger example of Feudalism, only with a clear
- Information sharing is accomplished through negotiation
Information becomes a form of currency within the business.
A successful IS professional must determine which environment he or she is
operating in - then be sensitive to the unwritten rules and act
accordingly. Too often, an eager system builder begins to slip into a state
that he or she is working toward the "greater good", and then lose sight of the
information politics. Rather, the IS professional must work from the business
client's perspective - even if the longer term objective is to move to a new
information political state. Once the current political state has been
identified, the politics of change can begin.
The System "Vision" Begins Here
John Naisbitt, in his book Re-Inventing the Corporation makes the
observation that "people want to make a commitment to a purpose, a goal, a
vision that is bigger than themselves - big enough to make them stretch and grow
until they assume personal responsibility for achieving it". This is the
objective of the System Builder. A vision must be created which will spark the
imagination of those who are exposed to it. Not only must the vision be
communicative, it must also seem achievable. The best way to create this level
of confidence in the eyes of those who will eventually be the project sponsors
and advocates, is to demonstrate genuine leadership and confidence.
One of the undeniable truths of system building is that leadership is
guided by vision, and vision is a result of experience. A crucial
factor in getting a systems effort initially off the ground, is the level of
competence and experience possessed by the potential System Builders. Without
question this is reflected in the vision the team presents to the potential
sponsors. Usually "gut" instincts on the part of the business clients play a
decisive role in further progress and continuation of the effort.
Champions, Advocates, and Sponsors
A project team cannot survive without business client support. This support
must be multi-leveled, extending all the way from top management to the
day-to-day business clients. Sustaining this support over a long-term project is
a tremendous challenge for the team, and it can never be taken for granted.
During the initial project approval process, three supporting client roles tend
to develop over time. The really interesting thing about this support is that
one or more business clients may assume one or more of these roles over the life
of the project. All three of the roles are essential and they are described
This tends to be a high level business client who either has a definite stake
in the results of the project, or who has a clear understanding of the long-term
benefits of the system. This person wants the new system, and he or she is
willing to put their organizational clout on the line for it! The system
champion contributes a big part toward getting the project off the ground and
into the planning phase. This is especially true if he or she is someone who
carries a great deal of respect and credibility within the business
An advocate tends to be a supporter of the project champion, but not someone
who is an active campaigner for the new system itself. Advocates tend to be
confirmers of the reasoning of the champion, and they may contribute concrete
benefits in support of the development effort. Unless they are very high in the
organization, champions have a hard time selling a new system by themselves.
Advocates provide additional needed political support and backing to the overall
approval effort. This support is especially effective if the advocates represent
a sizable group of related business functions and interests.
The project sponsors, more often than not, end up being the executive
management of the business area which will be footing the bill for the project.
Sponsors may or may not have been involved as champions or advocates of the new
system, but if the project is to succeed, they must be active supporters. The
earlier in the approval process the project sponsors can be identified and
actively involved, the more likely the project will become a reality. This
involvement allows these critical sponsors to develop their own personal stake
in the project outcome.
In many cases, the project sponsors may be members of an oversight committee,
formed from representatives of the involved business departments. This
arrangement is fine, as long as each committee member's role and purpose is made
clear to everyone, right from the beginning. In many situations, it is still
advantageous to have one, final decision making sponsor, who may or may not be a
part of the oversight committee.
Depending on who, and how high, the sponsors are, John Galsworthy points out
a truth worth remembering. His observation that "idealism increases in direct
proportion to one's distance from the problem" tends to be especially true about
those who support the birth of a systems project. Careful expectation setting
must be exercised at this point in the process. Enthusiasm should not be
dampened, but the temptation to exaggerate the eventual result should be kept in
check. This is very true when dealing with high level decision makers who tend
to view and remember promises in broad terms.