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Where can we find the next round of productivity?
In the hidden information dimension.


by Donald V. Steward and Richard Paynting, Problematics, LLC

Steward@Problematics.com

Productivity due to computers and communications drove the great economic boom. Now that this boom is waning, to avoid an economic bust we need to search elsewhere to find another round of productivity improvement. And we find it in an unexpected place, in a dimension that has until now been hidden from us. It is based on the premises that:

1. The business of business is solving problems and implementing their solutions,

2. We are now in a new environment where competitiveness depends on how quickly and effectively we can solve completely new problems for which no experience except out problem solving abilities could have prepared us,

3. Most people in business today are involved more with handling information than with handling things. Essentially everything done involves either solving a problem or repeating a process, and the process was developed as result of solving a problem,

4. If we are to find an increase in productivity, the best place to look for more productivity is where most of the work is done, solving problems. 

Today to survive, that alone thrive, depends on solving problems and realizing opportunities that arise as complete surprises without any precedents that could have been captured in experience. Rules are of no help and bureaucracies to enforce them only get in the way. Competing today depends not on how well we enforce the rules, but on how quickly we can break the old rules while still maintaining a focus on goals. In short, there is a great productivity potential to be realized by more effective problem solving methods. So let's look into the hidden dimension of information dependencies to see where we find an important new way of solving problems and a consequent increase in productivity. 

Typically in the past problems have been solved by divide-and-conquer, that is to say, repetitively breaking problems into smaller problems until problems are reached that can be solved. If you assign these problems and sub-problems to various people, you get a hierarchy. Hierarchies have dominated the work of mankind for thousands of years. But if we live by the hierarchy, the flow of information while solving the problem tends to be restricted by the structure of the hierarchy. 

We have found that each problem has its own inherent information flow that must occur, one way or another, before the problem can be solved. This information flow usually clashes with the information flow natural to a hierarchy, resulting in great inefficiencies, delays, added costs and considerable frustration. Huge gains in productivity can be achieved by organizing around the structure of the information flow inherent in the problem rather than around the structure of a preconceived, static organization.

Where do we find this structure of the problem? It is in the hidden information dimension where we find the information items we need to solve the problem and which of these items depend on which others.

We are used to planning by looking at the dimensions of tasks and time, such as when we do critical path scheduling. In these more familiar dimensions we cannot have circuits because time cannot go backwards. But when we look into the information dimension, we are faced with something quite different. We find circuits, such as the cost depends on the volume sold, the volume sold depends on the price, and the price depends on the cost. 

What does this mean? It means we must develop an 'approach' showing where we will use assumptions to break the circuits. Starting with an assumption, we go around the circuit until we get back to what we had assumed. At this point we have a basis for judging whether the assumption was correct or whether we need to iterate around the circuit again. Once we have decided where we will use assumptions, we know the information flow needed to solve the problem. 

By replacing the information items in the information dimension with the tasks that determine those information items, the circuits can be unwrapped and laid out in the time. Then to develop a plan we estimate the durations for each of these tasks, estimate the number of iterations, and insert a review at the end of each iteration. If we had chosen a different approach to where we use assumptions, we would have had a different plan and schedule. 

By analyzing the information structure before we make the plan, we may see how to come up with a better plan using less dangerous assumptions that may be completed in less time with less cost and less risk. Assumptions present risks. They could prove to be wrong. But since when we look at the information dimension we are forced to recognize the assumptions, they can be reviewed and their risks properly accounted for and managed. This can usually avoid the rather frequent occurrence at the end of a project when some overlooked assumption turns out to be wrong, embarrassing managers and throwing the project into chaos when there is no time or money left to resolve the difficulties caused by the assumption. 

A computer program has been developed to help work with the information dependencies to develop a plan, and then help with the implementation of the plan. It will see that everyone has the information they need when they it, or can recognize what is holding up that information and see that appropriate action is taken. By understanding the information dependencies through a display on each person's desk computer, every person can see how his or her role fits into the whole pattern. This gives people a greater sense of ownership of their work, which is a morale booster. People can learn by seeing what others are doing, aspire to other jobs and seek the necessary training to prepare for them.

They can also see what needs to be done and come to each other's aid when they see a difficulty. When any change is made to the plan, it is easy to recognize and notify everyone who is affected via the computer. When anyone proposes or makes a decision, he or she can more easily see the impacts on the rest of the project. Given proper training and an earned level of respect for judgment, this 'situation visibility' allows one to be empowered to solve problems closer to their origins, where they can be solved more quickly. The whole organization is able to respond more quickly to solving problems and realizing opportunities as they arise. 

You may have noticed that many of the consequence that fall out naturally from the 'situation visibility' provided by this Information Dependency Management technique are the very things that many gurus are proposing to us today, e.g., empowerment, cross-functional teams, learning organizations, and so forth. But approaching these suggestions as many separate goals can lead to one trying to keep his shoulder to the wheel, his nose to the grindstone, and his ear to the ground. But Mary Parker Follett pointed out in the 1920's that these concepts follow quite naturally by providing 'situation visibility'. And, we might add, they are of dubious value without situation visibility. But it is only recently once we have had Information Dependency Management and computers that we could provide the situation visibility that Mary called for. 

When we hear the word 'organization', it has several connotations, among them structures of authority, scope of knowledge, and information flow. Now, with Information Dependency Management, the structures of scope of knowledge and information flows can be separated from the structure of authority, opening new opportunities for how it too can be restructured. 

How do you get people to use the system? That is made a great easier because the advantages of using the system fall to the people who use it rather then to someone else who must enforce its use. Your primary role as a manager is to provide the computer system that helps them use it, provide training in its use, and support them when they take advantage of using it. Allowing teams and then projects to use IDM is a good place to start. 

So for greater productivity, follow the flow.



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