IMT: The First Week

IMT, before I confuse people too much, is the UW’s course designation for courses in the Master of Science in Information Management series. This week (starting last Friday) marked the first week of official activities, with Wednesday marking the start of classes.

The Day MSIM orientation was today, where all of the new Day students got together to get an overview of Information School (and some UW) services. We also did a group activity involving Legos, which was intended to demonstrate how group dynamics can function. An interesting fact – of the slightly more than 30 students in the incoming Day cohort (edit 10/13: 32 total), only 12 of them are actually native to the United States. Some are from places like New Zealand, Japan, and India. I’ve also been assigned a faculty advisor: Robert Mason, the Associate Dean for Research at the School. We’ve been encouraged to wait a bit before contacting them, as they’ve only just gotten our information and each one has a slightly different advising style.

The all-iSchool orientation and services fair was today. A big hearty welcome from the Dean, Harry Bruce – who encourages us all to whisper in everyone’s ear “my school is the iSchool” – and introductions of key staff and faculty members, some of which I’ve known due to my SharePoint work over the summer. Orientation was followed by the services fair, which ended up being so crowded that I just grabbed a few fliers from some of the student groups and left, since there was no way that I could get much else done.

There was a fascinating lecture on Tuesday by Angeline Djampou, the Chief Legal Librarian with the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, who talked extensively on preserving the memory of the Rwandan genocides and the consequences of it (both for the victims and those accused). Most interesting here is that they essentially ended up starting from scratch when trying to figure out how to prosecute these cases – they use a hybrid of the French and British judicial systems, which is very hard to comprehend compared to the legal system in the United States. Dad was there, and he made that comment afterwards, and also pointed out that most people probably weren’t aware of the differences (I confess, I’m only minimally aware of them).

Angeline also talked about setting up libraries in Rwanda to help preserve the ICTR’s documents and decisions. This is truly a very impressive effort, particularly when you consider that it was the first international criminal tribunal of its kind (followed fairly soon by the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia).

IMT500 – Wednesday/Thursday
The first class we take in the MSIM program is IMT500, The Information Management Framework, which is essentially a whirlwind introduction to the topics covered throughout the program. The first day – Wednesday – we talked fairly extensively about what information management encompasses and what sorts of information we often deal with and how collaboration forms those systems. I gave a brief presentation on SharePoint which was an introduction to the final assignment for the class – creating an information system and observing how that system is built, what the process within the group creating the system is, and what sorts of interactions occur for that system to emerge.

Thursday we had presentations from faculty members Hazel Taylor, who talked about the management of information organizations and the different types of knowledge that we employ, and Cheryl Metoyer, who gave a brief overview of the topics we’re covering in IMT510 and handed out the class syllabus.

Mike Crandall, the instructor for IMT500 and also chair of the MSIM program, made a couple very important points on Thursday: first, almost nobody comes into the program really knowing what it is. He also explained that this program is not actually a technology program, though it has technology in it. The MSIM program focuses more on how to utilize technology as a part of the bigger picture and on utilizing it to be effective in our usage of information. Graduates of the program are expected to understand, amongst other things, XML, databases, how to build information systems, and how to translate the structure of information (or maybe more accurately, the structural aspects of information) into human-readable presentation forms. This is an insanely flexible program – while you do take core courses, the electives can come from any interest area you might have. Thus, people interested in the technology side can take courses to accent that; those interested in business, or certain aspects of business management, can take courses from other schools in that subject; and those interested in other subsets of information management can focus in those areas independently.

My planning will likely fairly closely involve my advisor, but I fully intend to take advantage of courses outside of the IMT series.

IMT501 – Wednesday
This was essentially an orientation session for an online course to make sure that everyone was starting off on the same page. Future lab times on this course will be optional. This is probably going to be the most complicated course in terms of keeping track of what needs to be done, since it’s primarily delivered in an online format. The content is stuff that I, for the most part already know (which has some people baffled as to why I’m bothering instead of taking, say, IMT 542). I’ve done review in the past (taking Computers and Human Reason one summer quarter during my work at Evergreen), and firmly believe that the opportunity to review can really solidify and change my understanding of what computers are and what they can accomplish. The instructor for this course is encouraging all of us to push ourselves to learn what we need to learn, which means that students like me who know quite a bit of it already have no excuse to slack off. Of course, I wouldn’t slack off regardless – this is graduate-level work.

I admit to dreading next week somewhat, since IMT510 and 540 both start then. 500, since it’s only a four-day introduction to the curricula, doesn’t have that much “oomph” behind it, which isn’t to say that you don’t learn anything. Depending on credit load, my real challenge may not be until next quarter depending on how many classes I have to take to meet the 10-credit minimum. I’ve been considering options, and it’s possible that I might end up trying to take some classes from the Technical Communication program. Next quarter, though, I might be eying INFO 498 – Programming Semantic Structures, offered by Terry Brooks (no, not the author), as an elective.

What is Information Management?

Information management, as I understand it, is a somewhat slippery subject – perhaps made so by the fact that it’s something that intertwines throughout our everyday existence without being noticed. Yet the centrality of information and the need for information to be manipulated and grouped has given rise to the field. I wanted to quote both my MSIM application and the UW Information School’s own resources to help give definition to what information management actually is. First, passages from my application essay:

But what is information? Certainly, there are textbook definitions, but I think of information as collective knowledge passed on by some form of communication. Information can persist, but not without some method of recording it. Information necessarily must be interpreted via communication, in addition to being conveyed through such means. Without a method to interpret what is provided, potentially invaluable resources can be lost forever. Worse than the loss of information is the loss of information’s meaning.

It is important to remember that information and information technologies are not inextricably linked. Though information should survive without modern information technologies to manage it, the inverse is not true. Modern information technologies serve to make the collection and dissemination of information far more efficient, and also make available new methods of manipulating information; still, it is the information itself that is key, and one must not lose sight of this.

[ . . . ]

I have found that information management is not just about the approach, but about the ethical and professional handling of information. Without a clear and objective preservation and organization of the information crucial to organizations, and without a clear eye towards how such information should be presented, managed, and used, the process of preserving information for future use becomes a losing battle.

The Information School doesn’t really offer a definition, per se – but it does offer the following on its overview page:

The Master of Science in Information Management (MSIM) degree educates professionals to manage and direct the evolving needs of today’s organizations and businesses. The MSIM program integrates the areas of strategic planning, systems design, business leadership, metadata, networking, and information technology. The program also has a unique focus on organizing information systems to meet human needs; this human-centered approach is integrated into the MSIM curriculum.

This adds another component that I alluded to in my application, but didn’t really touch on: information management is inherently about managing the needs of others and managing the relationships between people (at least as it relates to enabling collaboration).

I can, then, define information management in several ways: first, it is the actual act of determining how information is stored, labeled, and accessed. This is about physical aspects of information (which seems a bit backwards, since information itself is not necessarily in physical form in the sense that we can touch it).

Second, it is understanding how to place a particular piece of information into context and to define its relationship with other pieces of information (and chances are, such a relationship exists, but this isn’t necessarily always the case). For instance, the yearly earnings for a particular company clearly carry a date-sensitive context: these are figures for a particular period of time, presumably in a series of time-related documents. But chances are that such information also carries with it legal contexts (that the information needs to be reported properly).

Finally (and perhaps most significantly), it is about creating spaces for information to be examined and manipulated.  This is a very powerful thing and, for me, very much evokes the world of Orwell’s classic 1984: who has information, who controls it, and who doesn’t have it plays an essential role in how society interacts.  Just as withholding crucial evidence from a legal case or forgetting to multiply a particular result in mathematics properly can have a substantial and sometimes catastrophic impact on how information is perceived, so too, though, can information empower.

These definitions will, inevitably, change over time, and I’m hoping to document how my thinking on the subject changes.