Think Info

Exploring the information space

We are the Architects (Euro IA 2013)

Any talk about information that kicks off with references to chaos theory is bound to be good. Lisa Welchman‘s opening keynote at EuroIA was just such a talk, and it didn’t stop with the chaos.


We live in a society that has been permeated by digital communications. As key participants in this relatively new, but rapidly evolving, ecosystem, Information Architects need to be stepping up and leading. We are not passengers: we are the drivers who will shape the future. But it is not an easy world to navigate; not only do we lack a map – we are breaking the first trails – but the system is far from linear.

Much of the environment we are operating in is a legacy from the industrial age: big organisations with top-down hierarchies. These are not conducive to designing and implementing meaningful digital presences. The people tasked with crafting these things often sit at the lowest point of the organisation, minions responsible for avoiding failures, but without the authority to make decisions (and, obviously, never credited properly when things go right). But this organisation model is not where the industrial revolution started; when the individual artisan was replaced with larger enterprises, the first organisational charts were designed with lines of reporting and responsibility, empowering the individuals at the tips to make decisions because they were the experts, while the trunk managed overall strategic direction. The inversion of the model came about as a result of megalomania, and those running organisations based on this model clearly fear change – their power is at risk.The change, though, is happening. Smaller operations are springing up, individual artisans in the pre-industrial revolution model, who are harnessing the power of digital communications. Information – the ability to exchange and manipulate it, to see beyond the single connection into associations – is the new power. But this power is not being harnessed properly: very few people are attempting to systematise information management – they are failing to map the lessons of supply chain management into the information space. So what we have ended up with is a chaotic flow of information that we feel a need to stay on top of, that is overloading the human ability to track and manage. We should instead be looking to ensure the flow is so reliable that we do not need to keep track of it; that we can slow down, and only dip in when we have need to.

When the information flow is stabilised – when the technology starts to facilitate it – then we will have meaningful knowledge transfer at all levels, and on all axes. That will strengthen relationships, and allow new ones to develop. It will open up the world, eroding hatred and mistrust, creating bonds that will better stand the test of misunderstanding.

For the moment, most information is managed as a tool to accomplish something (yes, even your social networking; that is generating data to sell you as an advertising mark). If we wish to ensure that information is truly reliable, we need information management to be for the information’s own sake; we need information management to empower the information in ways that allow it to be more flexible, more reusable. More granular. This is not a problem that will be solved with a single fix: it requires attention to be paid to all angles and dimensions that the information interacts with, from human-interface front ends, through back-end storage and manipulation, via management and manipulation interfaces, to the fully-automated inter-device exchange of data, and the self-transformative property of the information resulting from its association with other data. (Did I mention it needs an understanding of chaos theory?)

Most of the “change” being applied to the information landscape at the moment comes from two sides:

  • Political regulation, resulting from attempts to maintain personal/corporate advantages, disregarding technological know-how or the desires of the public.
  • Innovators bypassing current systems and regulations to move the discipline forwards.

It is time for the Information Architects of the world to step forward and lead – to make our voices heard. (Waiting to be invited will get you nowhere.) Those who understand the complexity of digital communication have the tools to move digital society into the future, to guide and define the business and personal landscapes of the future. We can either get current organisations to embrace this change, by showing how the investment will empower the results those with budgets want, or we can strike out as lone artisans, crafting the future.

But whichever approach we take, we do need to apply scientific rigour to our methods, otherwise, we will only be adding to the madness of information overload…

Raw notes:

  • In the information age, the Information Architect is a key player. There need to be more doing more than wireframes.
  • Is the internet one of these closed, non-linear systems. I believe the answer is yes.
  • Not only are we working in this chaotic information system, we are also defining it.
  • When we look at technology from 50 years ago, how often do we say “What were they thinking? Why didn’t they do a better job?”
  • You are the people who are responsible for the future not thinking what we are doing now was appalling.
  • The first org chart was empowered workers, passing information to the root, governance.
  • In an information age, shouldn’t the people managing the information model be higher up the org structure?
  • Information supply chain management – kind of an obvious concept, but who is embracing it?
  • We should be able systematise our information management. That’s Information supply chain management.
  • Information is flowing faster. Can we keep up with it? Should we?
  • Can our information flow be so secure – so reliable – that we can slow down, and not need to track it all?
  • Technology is allowing us to go back to the piece model of pre-industrial revolution. Crafting things from home.
  • “I don’t believe that one person should be telling another what to do.”
  • Top-down organisation modelling is not just wasting resources. It’s wasting human time.
  • In org governance, a key problem is the information flow. The technology does not facilitate.
  • Information needs to be available, and it needs to flow. That generates relationships (business or personal).
  • The ability to exchange information creates relationship longevity.
  • Modern relationships have more dimension due to information. Colleague, yes. Has a life outside work, yes.
  • It is harder to fight and kill someone when you know them – when you have a personal relationship with them.
  • Can we broker peace with good information flow? (yes)
  • Everyone understand information is important. But we need to manage information for itself. Meta.
  • To manage information, you need front end, back end, content management, inter-device.
  • If you are going to architect the information age, don’t wait to be invited to the ride. Force your way on.
  • Whose role is it to ensure everyone can access the information?
  • The IA’s role is to be in front, to lead.
  • The people who fear change are those running the industrial model. They fear change.
  • Regulation is political heavy-handedness. They aren’t asking the people who matter – the experts and public.
  • Our brains are changing, yes. But the world is messed up. Maybe it’s a good thing so we can cope.
  • Take a broader perspective of the information age, and what needs to be architected.
  • Resources are not as finite as people claim. When the pet project comes along, the budget appears.
  • Be authoritative about what you know. Speak up.
  • The further away from the heart of the organisation you put responsibility, the faster things spin/go.
  • In badly managed organisations, too many people are made responsible to deliver what they have no authority to define.
  • “I’m not saying we need to have an information coup… but maybe I am.”
  • The information architecture community needs to learn from the rigour of the scientific community.
  • Prediction: 3 generations until information transparency leads to world peace.
  • You don’t change things and not feel it.


Lisa’s presentation slides on Slideshare.



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