January 4, 1999

How Far Automation Will Go With Information Brokers

By Steven L. Telleen

Q:Is there a place in the enterprise for job functions that require helping users find information quickly on their growing intranets--or is the trend toward complete automation? 

A: Those charged with the brokering of information occupy a role that is vital to an organization. As David Shenk, author of "Data Smog," said, "Knowledge is power, but an unregulated stream of information is rarely the best route to knowledge." Thus, while automated tools help us cope with the ever-increasing volume of information on intranets, people will continue to play a large role in managing that information. 

Brokering of community information is accomplished by a collection of agents. Both individuals and communities have two distinct information needs: sensory, or the need to collect information to gauge current conditions; and action, or the need to impart information that will create a desired effect. 

Since your question is about finding information, I will focus on the three sensory roles: collection, organization, and evaluation of information. 

People in clerical roles who fill out, accept, and process forms in government or private industry are collection agents. Here, the trend is toward automation, and many collection roles will be displaced by self-service intranet technology. 

Anyone who structures information so it can be found again--librarians, administrative assistants, and database administrators--is an organizing agent. As information on intranets continues to multiply, these roles are gaining in importance. With previous technology, classification and organization of information was necessarily related. To be found again, data had to be prestructured, leading to a process-heavy management style. 

The advent of intranet technology and the resultant separation of physical and logical organization of information allows a more flexible, event-driven management style. A wide variety of perspectives can be organized for the same information space, and automated agents (spiders) can be used to monitor the constantly changing status of that space, resulting in management-after-the-fact rather than process management. 

The people who define and manage the perspectives will become increasingly valuable to knowledge-based organizations. Many staff and support roles fall into this category, but their occupants have not yet transformed the way they work to take advantage of intranet technologies and approaches. 

Evaluators must have status as an authority in order to be effective--ranging from being sanctioned by established community leadership to building a populist following among community members. Historians, critics, and analysts provide a community evaluation of the information. Visionaries, revolutionaries, and cult leaders are evaluation agents whose value systems differ from the official community leadership. 

True evaluation roles are difficult, if not impossible, to automate, because they are about imparting meaning to the mass of information, and meaning requires a human context. 

Organizations will continue to need all three roles to digest and act effectively on information they have available. Collection roles will become increasingly automated; organizing roles will remain people-centric but will become increasingly dependent on automated tools; and evaluative roles will remain a fully human endeavor. 

Date: 19990104
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