Illumination not enumeration

Information audits are not a counting exercise but a platform from which to develop a total KM strategy. And a regulat information audit is the only way to ensure your business is really efficient, argues Campbell McCracken

Inappropriate resources

Despite the amount of money that is spent on establishing and maintaining portals and intranets, users are still not experiencing step-wise improvements in efficiency and productivity. There are several reasons why this is the case. "Because of the proliferation of information products and delivery methods, information users within organisations are suffering from information overload," says Sue Henczel, Author and Manager, Education and Business Development, CAVAL Collaborative Solutions, Australia. "It is too easy for people to get information and too difficult for them to find the information they need. And some of the resources may not be the most appropriate for their needs."
There can be other reasons too - poor communication for example. "People are not aware of who else in a company needs to know what they know in order to do their jobs properly," says Liz Orna, independent Information Consultant and Author. "Similarly, people don't know who to turn to in order to get the information they need." So how do you find out why things are not flowing as smoothly or as efficiently as they should be in your organisation? By conducting an information audit.

What is an information audit?

Before looking at what an information audit is, it will be helpful to clarify what it is not. "The word 'audit' is rather a misleading one because some people think you just identify where your resources of information are," says Orna. Certainly the identification of resources is one step in the audit process, but the inventory produced is useless on its own.
"The information audit examines the activities and tasks that occur in an organisation and identifies the information resources that support them," says Henczel. "It examines not only the resources used, but how they are used and how critical they are to the successful completion of each task."
The audit should provide a platform for future decisions on information policy and knowledge management. "You're trying to get illumination rather than just enumeration," explains Orna.

How do you start?

Most consultants follow the same basic process when conducting an information audit (see box: The Information Audit Process) and the most critical step is the first one. "My own approach is to start off by asking three questions" says Liz Orna. These are

The answers to these questions should give you the background to the rest of the audit and should help you to develop the audit plan. The plan should include such things as the objectives, the scope and who in the organisation is going to be running the audit. "It is very important that they shouldn't simply be relying on consultants to come in and do it for them," says Orna, "because this won't work. There has to be an understanding and commitment from inside the business - somebody has to be responsible for it and they have to be at the proper [ie management] level."

Should an audit be unique

Once the planning is complete, the next steps are deciding on the most appropriate ways of gathering information and the gathering process itself. Both of these will depend on the size and nature of the organisation. If it is small and centralised then one-to-one interviews might be the best method. If the organisation is large and spread around the globe then an e-mail questionnaire might be more appropriate.
Whatever the method chosen, the idea behind the questioning is to identify where knowledge exists and where it is needed to support decisions and actions. "You always want to begin by understanding what [the interviewee's] role is," says independent consultant Bonnie Burwell. "What do they do in this organisation? What are they accountable for? What information input do they need to be responsible for that particular area? Where do they go and get that? What's the value of that?"
It is tempting to try to come up with an easy formula for carrying out an audit, but that would not yield fruitful results. "A good audit is designed specifically for that one organisation," says Burwell. "There isn't a 'cookie-cutter' audit. The questions that are asked should be driven by the issues to be addressed, the objectives for the audit. How critical is it for you to work with the Marketing dept, or how critical are the sales figures for you? The audit has got to be unique for that organisation."

How to analyze?

Once the interviews have been carried out and other supporting information gathered, they have to be analysed to detail the information that is required to support each task or activity. "It is then possible to trace a specific resource from the task it supports to the organisation objective, and assign a level of strategic significance to it," says Henczel.

One audit identified more than 130,000 being spent on supporting a "department" of one person who spent his time producing a report that was no longer required, as the division he was producing it for had been axed over a year previously.

At the moment, there are no tools available that are specifically aimed at conducting an information audit. Most consultants advocate the use of spreadsheets, databases and drawing tools and, if you intend sending out an e-mail survey, specialist survey software to help with the analysis.
The analysis will show not also where tasks are being supported, but where they are not supported and where they are duplicated. "The scenario most commonly repeated is that of the organisations spending upwards of 80 per cent of their enterprise-wide information budget on information that does not support the strategically significant tasks, while the critical tasks are largely unsupported," says Henczel.

And what are the benefits?

Typically an information audit brings both tangible and intangible benefits. "You get a clear picture of the real situation rather than the situation imagined by the management. The evidence that you get from it is often a surprise to organisations," says Liz Orna. "So many of the things that go wrong and so many of the things that need to be done involve getting an understanding between people, and proper communication running around the organisation."
On the less tangible side you have a snapshot of information and communication within the organisation. "You get a platform for making the kinds of changes that are necessary and for learning," says Orna. Bonnie Burwell agrees. "Information Audit is a pretty logical first step in any KM initiative."

One audit identified the duplication of corporate-wide licences for the same product, costing almost 100,000 per annum.

Typically an information audit brings both tangible and intangible benefits. And once the audit report is published, that's not the end of the matter, because an information audit is only a snapshot, and things might change within the organisation tomorrow. You have to consider when it will be time for the next audit, which will build on the first one, validate its findings and check that the organisation has learned from it. "It's not a static kind of thing, it's not a counting exercise," concludes Liz Orna. "It's very much people and organisations, how they work."

The Information Audit Process

The following steps outline the information audit process. Most consultants follow the same basic process. "The scope may vary but the process is pretty consistent," says Bonnie Burwell.

Further Reading
The Information Audit - A Practical Guide
by Sue Henczel.
(Bowker-Sauer, 2000)
Further Reading
Practical Information Policies
by Elizabeth Orna.
(Gower, 1999)