As information architects, the core of our profession rests on the analysis of information, the identification of structure, the creation of taxonomies and site maps, and the development of wireframes and user interfaces. These skills are well-honed, and we play a significant role in the design and creation of many systems, from websites to web 2.0.
Working within the enterprise, we are confronted with new challenges. There is a lack of clarity around needs and goals, organisational issues are paramount, and the real challenge is making things happen and getting users to adopt the new solutions.
This is the focus of what is often called “enterprise IA”, the application of information architecture in complex business environments. To be successful in these situations, we need skills and strategies that focus much more on people than on information.
This article explores some of the approaches needed to ensure that we are successful at implementing IA within organisations, with the goal being to encourage further discussion in the community about these issues.
More than any other skill set, enterprise information architects need to have a strong understanding of business strategy and planning. With so many possible issues to solve, the greatest success is achieved when activities are designed to support organisational strategy and to deliver tangible business benefits.
In practice, this includes:
- Building a strong understanding of overall corporate strategy and directions.
- Using this knowledge to select projects that will support organisational goals.
- Designing projects to deliver tangible and visible benefits within the organisation.
- Developing project plans that will deliver “quick wins” while building momentum for longer-term activities.
- Conducting good project management, including working within project constraints and maximising the use of project resources.
At the end of the day, enterprise IA projects need to be able to demonstrate that they have made a real and measurable difference to the core activities of the organisation.
Top down and bottom up
Successful enterprise projects follow both a “top down” and “bottom up” approach that combines overall business strategy with an in-depth understanding of staff needs and issues.
This is illustrated in the following diagram:
For an information architecture project, this means:
- Working with senior management to obtain strategic input, including overall business goals and objectives.
- Conducting in-depth research with key staff groups to identify major staff issues and needs.
- Using the strategic view as a “lens” to select key activities that both support business goals and meets the needs of staff.
- Developing a set of tactical (short-term) strategic (longer-term) activities to deliver improvements to information management within the organisation.
While this is not the only way that an enterprise IA project can be managed, it demonstrates different approaches that must be explored by information architects when addressing complex business problems.
User research techniques such as interviews, focus groups, contextual inquiry, and workplace observation are well understood and widely practiced by most IAs. While these techniques are important in general IA projects, they are critical for enterprise IA activities.
For a typical website project, the starting point is to define goals, objectives, and broad functionality. Research is then done to determine the best way to design and deliver the solution, with user-centered methodologies driving interface design and site structure.
Within the enterprise, the order is reversed. The starting point, as outlined earlier, is to conduct research with staff. The purpose is to identify the needs and issues of staff, which then helps define the goals and scope of the project.
This research is much more open-ended than typical user-centered design. Staff aren’t asked questions about the intranet, portal or document management system. Instead, the aim is to build an in-depth understanding of how staff work, and the environment in which they operate. In practice, we’re looking for issues and needs that we don’t even know to ask about. (The “unknown unknowns”, to quote a now-infamous speech in the US political arena.)
This approach is much closer to ethnography than user-centered design, and we can learn much from this discipline when working within the enterprise. By building up this depth of knowledge, we can target the most important needs, confident that the solutions delivered will be useful (and used) in practice.
Enterprise IA projects are only successful when delivered solutions are actually used by staff. While this is more certain when solutions are based on an in-depth knowledge of staff needs, a comprehensive change management plan will still be required.
Organisational change becomes a key element of enterprise IA projects. Information architects working within complex business environments need to have a strong understanding of organisational culture and how to work effectively within it.
For example, the greatest enemy of our projects is not active resistance, but apathy. While information problems within the organisation are generally widely known, they are not seen as sufficiently urgent or important to be addressed as a matter of priority.
Enterprise IA projects must start by creating a sense of urgency within the organisation. A strong message and vision must be created for the projects, and communicated widely to build support at all levels of the organisation.
Enterprise information architects must be prepared to work across technology boundaries. This is about delivering a single user experience that provides a seamless work environment regardless of what technology is used behind the scenes.
This means that enterprise IA projects must at least have an understanding of:
- content management systems
- document and records management systems
- collaboration tools
- applications and databases
This is not to say that enterprise architects need to be technologists or developers. In most cases, enterprise projects will be supported by IT teams and departments that provide specialist skills in these areas.
Enterprise IAs must, however, understand enough of these technologies to create solutions, taxonomies, and designs that help to bring these systems closer together, towards the goal of a single user experience.
Working with others
There are many disciplines that are working to solve enterprise issues, including:
- knowledge management
- content management
- information management
- document and records management
There is no one group that “owns” the problem, or has all the skills, tools and resources to solve it. While each group has its own models and metaphors, each successfully addresses at least part of the overall problem.
This is where we need to build our skills in working with others, what Lou Rosenfeld calls our “horse trading” skills. This is not just about working in multi-disciplinary teams, it is about working with key individuals from other teams, business units or even divisions, all reporting through different chains of command.
(This is where establishing a “community of practice” focusing on enterprise issues can be very helpful. This approach is actually drawn from the knowledge management domain, further demonstrating the need for collaboration between disciplines.)
Successful enterprise IAs are those with people skills, perhaps ahead of their specialist skills in card sorting, taxonomies, wireframes, and paper prototypes.
A call to arms
The need to deliver better solutions within organisations is great. When driven solely by technology, enterprise projects almost invariably deliver unusable interfaces and poorly structured information that generates considerable resistance to change.
While information architects are not the only group working within the enterprise space, there is the opportunity to demonstrate leadership in delivering effective projects and solutions.
If this is to occur, then the information architecture community needs to build its knowledge in the areas of business strategy and organisational change. We also need the people skills to work well with many other groups within the enterprise, each of whom contributes some part of the overall solution.
This is not to say that all information architects need these skills. Designing interfaces and structuring information is a worthy challenge, and it remains as the core of information architecture.
Space must be found, however, to discuss and explore the unique challenges encountered within the enterprise. We must recognise that a strategic view is equally important as professional design expertise and enterprise information architects must be supported in their quest for best-practice approaches and techniques.
So much more can be written about enterprise information architecture, and this article merely scratches the surface. It is hoped, however, that it will contribute to the discussions in this space, and to help raise the visibility of issues already being wrestled with by information architects in many organisations.
All of this is not to say that information architects need to become specialists in business strategy and organisational change. We will certainly not be hired to develop business strategy for organisations (and nor should we be!).
In an ideal world, information architects will be part of a broader team within an organisation that includes change managers, professional communicators and other specialists. As part of this team, we must understand organisational issues, but are not responsible for resolving them.
In practice, however, information architects often work alone or in small teams. Even large corporations often leave IA projects with only modest support and resources, perhaps due to a lack of understanding of the full challenges involved in delivering enterprise solutions.
In these cases, information architects are then faced with two choices: become more proficient in the areas outlined in this article, or narrow the scope (and expectations) of the project.
In either case, enterprise information architects will always benefit by having at least a core knowledge of organisational issues and approaches.
The fields of business strategy and organisational change are well-developed and supported by many highly effective resources. In particular, the following books have strongly influenced the author when addressing enterprise challenges:
- Leading Change (John P. Kotter; ISBN 0875847471) – this provides a very practical methodology for creating and driving change within an organisation. Required reading for every information architect.
- The Heart of Change (John P. Kotter, Dan S. Cohen; ISBN 1578512549) – a companion volume that explores the role of storytelling in organisational change, providing many powerful examples of real situations.
- Good to Great (Jim Collins; ISBN 0066620996) – explores why some organisations make the jump from “good” to “great”, based on extensive empirical research. Provides many insights that are valuable in enterprise IA projects.
Beyond this, there are many articles, journals, and training opportunities that can be used to build expertise in the fields of business strategy and organisational change. Once core IA skills have been developed, enterprise information architects should switch their focus to exploring these areas.
About the author
James Robertson is apparently the “intranet guy”, or so he was told at the IA Summit in Vancouver . He runs Step Two Designs , a consultancy based in Sydney , Australia , and has written over one hundred articles on intranets and content management, which can be found on his site. He also has a blog, the writing of which gives him something to do each morning while his brain warms up.