What is an Information System?

Are You Watching What You Really Need?

The other day, I got to talking about what data was. I explained that data was a discrete fact that, by itself, had no specific relevance. We can't contrive meaning out of things like "red", "287.83", or "Ron" unless we know how they're being used ... that they have context.

Information is data in context. It's the lens by which that we perceive data and attempt to make sense of it. If I told you that, in this case, Ron was interested in purchasing a red suitcase for $287.83, then the data is put in context and makes sense, and subconsciously, our minds are already making judgments and decisions surrounding the information that it's been fed:

  • Is "red" really a good color for a suitcase? Your mind is already buzzing with long-held perceptions, images, and opinions concerning red suitcases.

  • Is $287.83 really too expensive, given your judgment and past history purchasing suitcases?

  • Is there a reason why Ron wants to travel?

Watch What the Mind Does!

The mind is an interesting thing. See the last one there? My mind wanted to jump to the next logical conclusion - it made this assumption that Ron would be travelling based off of known variables. Ahh assumptions! But did I make the right assumption?

Think About Your Small Business Information System

Should we look at this example as a lesson for understanding your small businesses' information system, I think we should make three points:

  1. Facts. Are the facts (datum) recorded in your company's information system accurate? This goes back to my last conversation with you. If the data is bad, the information we'll get from it is bad, and the decisions we'll end up making will be wrong. If the data's bad, why is it bad? That's going to need to be fixed before anything else.

  2. Information. Is the information derived from the information system relevant to your job, or, the job of your employees? Example: if this was a suitcase retailer, it'd be relevant - we see who bought what and for what price. Instead, if you're in the business of, say, carpet cleaning, how does this information help you? Is the information you're getting from your information system relevant to the decisions that need to be made? If it ain't relevant to you or your employees, what's the point? What's the value in being handed irrelevant information? 

  3. Assumption. Finally, how did the information system work to dispel assumption? In this case, there were few data points and my mind was able to wander (as minds do!) and make a broad assumption about what I was seeing. That assumption - that Ron was travelling - may be entirely wrong! And you guys know what happens when people ... assume ... in your business, right? The next thing to look at: how is the information system providing relevant, factual, accurate information, that dispels assumption, and leads the user to the correct decision/answer every time? If the information system provides information that's left up to interpretation (or assumption), we'd see increased guesswork in outcomes, leading to more errors, more malfunctions, more loss.

If we were talking, I'd want to look at the reports being spit out by your information system. How do the contents of this report benefit its user? I'd ask, "What do we absolutely need to know to do THIS job?", and then look at how the information system is providing the right information to the right person at the right time make the best decision, and in a way that dispels assumption, because the more assumptions that'll be made will contribute to higher error rates and loss down the road.

Hey ... There's More?

Wow! Cool, okay, today we've covered some great information theory 101! All of this content is related to my discussion on information management strategy for the small business.

Next time we'll talk about automated versus manual information systems, and, the impacts of errors and omissions. Talk to you then.