Understanding the Hierarchy of Information Needs

By Majid Abai

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I have always been fascinated by Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. In 1943, Abraham Maslow offered a theory called “A Theory of Human Motivation” in which he suggested human needs followed a specific hierarchy.

The basic concept is the higher needs in this hierarchy only come into focus once all the needs lower down in the pyramid are mainly or entirely satisfied.

Maslow’s hierarchy has five levels:

  • Level One includes the physiological needs such as food, water, air, etc.
  • Level Two includes safety needs such as shelter and clothes;
  • Level Three is considered sense of belonging and satisfies needs such as love, friendship, and group affiliation;
  • Level Four is Esteem where self esteem and esteem from others are prominent; and
  • on top of the hierarchy is Actualization where achieving one’s full potential will satisfy all needs.
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    For example, based on this theory, a human cannot focus on love until his hunger and thirst are satisfied and he has found a shelter. All good, but what does this have to do with organizations, you ask? Well, a lot.

    I believe organizations also follow the same hierarchy as far as information is concerned. Understanding this knowledge could prioritize the approach organizations take in delivery of information to their workers and provide IT departments a blueprint for providing the needed information to their organizations.

    But, before getting to detailed analysis of an organization’s information needs, it is important to examine the history and current state of IT departments in organizations:

    For the past 40 years or so, IT departments have operated backwards. Why? Because our focus in IT departments have been applications and not information. We have hired loads of programmers and software architects, and just a few data professionals. Our chief information officers are ex-programmers and/or infrastructure specialists; not information specialists.

    We have built great state-of-the-art applications that can handle thousands of transactions per second, but they deliver low-quality information to users. In short, data has been secondary to application in most IT organizations.

    Signs of Change

    In the past few years, however, I am starting to see a shift in this space. It is now, in the new millennium, when organizations are starting to shift focus from applications to information.

    They are forming enterprise data architecture groups within IT departments, paying attention and allocating budgets for concepts such as master data management, data integration, knowledge management, and business intelligence. And, all-in-all, recognizing the vital organizational asset is the information and not the appliance delivering it.

  • Having seen this shift, it becomes paramount for IT to recognize the hierarchy of information needs as they plan their long-term strategy of focusing on information and not applications.

    So, what are the five levels of an organization’s information needs?

    Level 1 – Communication Needs: At this level, an organization needs to communicate internally and externally, and have the ability to capture and disseminate this type of information.

    In today’s world, this need is satisfied by emails, electronic documents (such as word processing or spreadsheet documents), and websites that act as brochure-ware for a company.

    Level 2 – Operational Needs: At this level, an organization utilizes information as a vehicle for running and/or managing its operations and finances.

    Such information includes information about sales, costs, and the ability for some companies to sell, buy, or operate through Web (such as e-commerce sites); practice management systems, accounting systems, enterprise resource planning systems, customer relationship management systems, supplier management systems, etc. all provide information that supports operation and finances of the organization.

    Level 3 – Analytical Needs: Analytical needs are focused on when operational needs have been satisfied. Such needs require organizations to deliver information that provides insight into patterns and trends that go beyond information contained in one silo or subject area.

    Information needed to perform analytical needs could be stored internal to the organization or externally (by information brokerage companies). This type of information normally results in higher sales, reduced costs, better customer service, or improved operations.

    Level 4 – Knowledge Needs: Organizations are starting to recognize the value of hidden information within their documents. So far, most of data utilized within systems has been in structured format: relational or hierarchical databases.

    IBM considers structured data to be only 15% of the total data in organizations. This means that over 85% of information in organizations is stored in documents, spreadsheets, emails, audio, video, photographs, and other formats. In addition, there is tons of information about the organization, its products or services, and its people on the Web in the format of websites, blogs, chat rooms, etc.

    At this level, organizations are starting to unleash the power of such information. They are empowering their employees to access it in order to make better decisions for the organization.

    Level 5 –Simplification Needs: At this level, organizations start to review the internal landscape and move from a silo-mode into an enterprise-information-management model in order to simplify the information landscape.

    They will start to consolidate redundant and similar systems, implement information quality techniques for cleansing information, utilize re-useable enterprise-level appliances to deliver reliable information to all users, and maintain governance around each subject area of information.

    As a result, information will be delivered as a consistent, clean, and timely asset to any and all who need it and have the right to utilize it. At this level, information is documented, managed, and available as water or electricity is in each of our households. None of us need to know the source of the utility as long as it is available, clean, consistent, and timely.

    In conclusion, I’d like to add that in a large enterprise, some departments might be ahead of others from stand point of their information needs. Some could be more advanced (Level 3 or 4) while others are struggling to jump from Level 2 to Level 3. Smaller organizations, on the other hand, tend to remain within Levels 1 and 2 and seldom jump into Levels 3 or 4.

    Majid Abai is president and CEO of Seena Technologies, an enterprise information management and architecture consulting firm. Majid co-authored Data Strategy (Addison-Wesley, 2005) and teaches classes in Business Intelligence and Enterprise Data Architecture at UCLA.