Conversations Below Sea Level: Rik Maes

rik maes

Making Sense of Information: An Interview with Rik Maes

(photo and interview: Ulises Mejias, Creative Commons 2008)

Rik Maes (bio, personal website) is currently Dean of the Executive Master in Information Management Program and Program Director of PrimaVera at the University of Amsterdam Business School (full disclosure: my research fellowship is sponsored by this program). We sat down to talk on May 28.

Ulises Mejias: What is PrimaVera?

Rik Maes: PrimaVera is the Program for Research in Information Management. It is part of the Department of Information Management, which is located in the UvA Business School. We started the program about 10 years ago, as a way to bring together a number of perspectives on the way we deal with information management. From the very beginning, a basic point was the issue of structuration, of the architecture of information systems. But another very important issue was the area of ‘making sense,’ of transforming information into something more: knowledge, wisdom… Over the years, our focus has evolved. One of the main subjects we are now dealing with is what we call ‘information governance’: producing and making good use of information in your organization. It is a positive concept, not so much a technical or operational concept.

INTERDISCIPLINARY APPROACHES TO THE STUDY OF INFORMATION SYSTEMS

UM: You believe that IT (Information Technologies) are intrinsically social technologies, and that they can be scientifically studied only from an interdisciplinary perspective. How is PrimaVera structured to facilitate this interdisciplinarity?

RM: PrimaVera as a program is more like a network of people. We have people visiting us, participating in one way or another in our programs. We have academics like Lucas Introna (Lancaster University) and Chun Wei Choo (University of Toronto, Canada), but we also have people from the industry sector who spend, let’s say, one day a week here doing applied research. So the program is more than just the people sitting here.

But to go back to the first point of your question: Yes, IT is intrinsically social, specially the new types of information technology. Previous technologies were characterized by a mechanical way of handling information, which is what we do with ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) systems, for instance. Those technologies are based on the machine metaphor, where people are grouped around the machine, the ERP system, and if you don’t fit in that’s the end of the story; you have to adjust or you have to leave. Newer technologies are not based on that ideology.

UM: Do these new technologies need to be studied in an interdisciplinary way?

RM: Interdisciplinarity is important if we want our work to be relevant to the external world. Quite often we encounter the idea that interdisciplinarity has to do with a particular research methodology. I believe it also has to do with the relevance of our research to the outside world. The problems we face with Information Technology are only very partly technical problems, but are much more communication problems, which means we have to pay more attention to the human factors than we used to do in the past, like in information systems studies where we put a lot of effort on methodologies, etc. but that didn’t contribute very much to having a real effect in the world.

UM: You have said that information is interpretation and hence imagination, and that only by combining science and art can we evoke this imagination in its full richness. Aren’t science and art opposites? How can they be incorporated in information management?

RM: Basically, I believe that good information management consists of the right balance between, on the one side, informing organizations (bringing form to organizations, which means we need architectural concepts, or concepts of structuring), and inspiring organizations, bringing spirit back into the organization, the network. Unfortunately, in practice, information architecture gets so far away from that inspiration; it’s just identity confirming, structuring. It’s centripetal. Whereas inspiring the organization is about innovation, change, bringing a new identity to the organization. It’s centrifugal. For this out-of-the-box thinking, you can learn a lot from the real-world architects, who are not builders, but inventors of a new inspiring environment in which people can live and work. In my courses we start with a phase called Empathy, the feeling phase. If you are supposed to build an information system for a hospital, you need to first spend a week there as a patient, and then another week as a nurse, etc. Only then can you begin to think about the design of the information system. These are all concepts we take from architecture, from design, from the art world.

THE ECONOMY AND THE SOCIAL

UM: You are part of a Business School, so I want to ask you about the relationship between society, technology and the economy. A phrase I often quote suggests that before the economy was part of the social, whereas now (thanks in part to new media) the social is part of the economy. Is information management becoming the only means of making sense of the world?

RM: It’s true that digital technologies force us to reduce the whole world to digitized information. If you try to define, for instance, “safety” you try to define it in a very technical way in order to make it manageable. One example that comes to mind is the tram here in Amsterdam. They were supposed to give better service, and they reduced that to “being on time.” Soon, in the newspapers you started to see stories of the seeing-eye dog getting on the tram but the blind person being left behind, just so that the tram could leave on time! So there is a reductionism at work in the transition you mention. As part of this transition, we have gone form organizations thinking of themselves at the center of the world (and many still do), to a bottom-up society, where people do whatever they desire to do in changing combinations with other people. Sometimes they need the government for that, and sometimes they need a company, but basically it’s a society of individuals who look after their own interests. There, the role of the organization is reduced to certain moments in time. Does this mean that information management becomes the only means for making sense of the world? It depends on what you mean by information management. It needs to involve vision, responsibility, a responsibility for being in the world, for creating a world with more possibilities than we received ourselves… It also depends on what you mean by information. For me, information is a very rich concept, involving emotional aspects as well, not just what you put in computers.

FROM TRANSACTIONS TO RELATIONS

UM: You write in An Integrative Perspective on Information Management (PDF):

“The vision presupposed in IM (information management) is that of a business resource. This is basically an economic perspective: information can be traded (and becomes more and more tradable through digitalisation) and complies with specific economic laws… In addition to this exclusively economic perspective, one can study information also from a socio-constructivistic point of view: here, information is a social construct that derives its value from and gives value to the (subjective) context in which it is used… IM is [being transformed] into management of meaning” (2007).

Can you elaborate on why sense making is so important today?

RM: If you are supposed to make choices in a situation of abundance, as opposed to a situation of scarcity, then you have the luxury of making those choices based on your identity. In a situation of scarcity, you are more or less obliged to take one or another position. With abundance, your decisions are shaped by who you are, what kind of people you know, what you want to be in the world, etc. So first you have to be able to make sense of that information about your self, your identity. ICT’s have made very poor use of that information so far, I think. We have to make an effort to put more meaning into the way we use information in an organization. Even computerized data could be a much more richer representation of reality than it is today. It’s shouldn’t just be a number, a name, and an address. It also goes back to inspiration in the organization. We don’t ask people to put their imagination and inspiration into the stuff they are organizing. Nowadays, we try to organize and manage innovation. But every company that is of interest today was born more or less out of coincidence, out of the inspiration of a small group of people.

UM: Do you think there is a trend towards seeing information as something that needs to be increasingly secured and protected? And what price will we pay in order to secure information?

RM: Information cannot be secured anymore. Organizations are becoming so open that if you send an email within the organization, in half an hour it can be distributed all over the Web. The CIO of a big Dutch company going through “downsizing” told me they found at least 120 public employee blogs discussing the situation. So the price you have to pay is probably that the decision of whom to trust will become a difficult one. Trust is in danger. How do we find trust in one another? That has to do also with what it means to belong to an organization. People don’t belong to organizations anymore, in the same way they used to. It’s a more volatile role, belonging to a number of communities, splitting yourself into a number of identities. We are transitioning from a period where transactions were very important to a period where relations are very important. ERP systems are based on the transactions between people, but these transactions are becoming less important, more anonymous. So you fall back on the kind of relations you have in the world. At the same time, in order to have relationships, you have to be interesting yourself! I believe the kind of world we are entering requires much more energy in order to be part of a community, much more initiative. It demands a lot, but it gives you a lot too. It’s a very interesting way of living!

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