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.