Global information systems, between the info monster ‘Charybdis’ and ghost town ‘Scylla’

I promised I would write this post quite quickly to a KM4Dev Ethiopia mate who is (perhaps unfortunately) seeing to the establishment of a global-local information system for a large organisation. The focus of that information system and the client organisation matter little really, as I’m here interested in the generic case – and you will undoubtedly have come across various examples of such information systems yourselves:

An information system that is global in its nature, draws upon the latest available expertise but also taps into indigenous knowledge (tick the box ;)), is magically updated all the time and works for pretty much everyone. Ha! and it is, will be or certainly should be sustainable. But right now the organisation that will be in charge of that system has asked a consultant (my mate in this case) to develop it for them. Eventually they should be in charge again. You know what I mean?

How to avoid the creation of yet another information monster?
How to avoid the creation of yet another information monster?

I told my mate: I don’t think these ‘catch-all portal / one-stop-shop / jack-of-all-trade’ systems are of any use and are in for any success… If anything, this mad idea is likely to end up as an unmanageable ‘Charybdis and Scylla‘ scenario: your information system could become an information monster or a ghost town. In the worst possible case it could even be a combination of the two.

But then with mad ideas we shake the world so why not give him the benefit of the doubt and focus on some safeguarding considerations instead…

Where would I start if I wanted to make such an information system sustainable? Here are some pointers…

  1. Look around, check what’s in place and carefully assess your value proposition
  2. Involve the people that should inherit the management of that system
  3. Play with the knowledge system in place
  4. Think about the capacity of the people in charge
  5. Focus on your content strategy
  6. Make your system conversant with other initiatives
  7. Develop your glocal network and alliances

In a bit more detail…

1. Look around, check what’s in place and carefully assess your value proposition

There are many other (delusional?) initiatives trying to offer the ultimate information system to all on a given topic. Some are totally global, some are totally local, some are (positively delusional) totally on both fronts. Some do that and are just brilliant (Wikipedia) but came up from long term investments efforts.

What matters is that you look at what’s out there, what has been done in similar fields and how this new initiative you promote offers something new and unique. Perhaps it has a better interface, perhaps it much more focused on local information, perhaps it has access to an unprecedented pool of expertise. If you can’t determine what that ‘unique selling point’ (USP) is then your system seems pretty flawed from the start.

So: do your literature and practice check and scratch your head to find your USP – in fact, better ask the people that you’re doing this for what they need to work more effectively, what their current needs and questions are.

2. Involve the people that should inherit the management of that system

If you’re building that system for third parties and plan to hand it over to them, involve them as early as possible, not only the management of that third party organisation (to think about the purpose and aforementioned USP) but also the people that will be in charge of the information system, both technically, in terms of communication and promotion. They need to be part of the project or the post-consultancy graft will be doomed at handover phase… and then you end up again in ghost town (they really don’t bother), or with an information monster (they’re not managing this well and the system quickly gets messed up…).

3. Play with the knowledge system in place

Building a cadillac of a system in a Trabant garage is not going to work out. Adapt to the local environment. All the bells and whistles will not be of any help if the people that run the system later cannot easily embed that system in their routine work. Look at existing information and knowledge management & sharing practices, protocols, responsibilities, capacities and tweak your system to adapt it to this environment. Otherwise you end up in infomonsterland – at least that’s what it might feel for the organisation that will be in charge of that monstrosity of a system later.

4. Think about the capacity of the people in charge

Which derives from the previous two points… Make sure that the people in charge are properly trained and coached in using the system and running it both technically, in terms of communication and promotion. Prepare good tutorials, good communication materials, a good coaching process to ensure a smoother handover, ideally spanning a few months so that the coaching centres around effective practice. Perhaps they need specific training on other types of skills (language, typing, database management, social media) which would help them perform their function better. Perhaps the people that are supposed to use the system also need some kind of information and skill training in order for the information system to work?

5. Focus on your content strategy

Think carefully about your content strategy (Credits - Raphaelle Ridarch / FlickR)
Think carefully about your content strategy – it’s not just about social media, it’s about getting great content quality and process (Credits – Raphaelle Ridarch / FlickR)

A lot of information systems and ‘databases’ (the magical word that means nothing but means everything to its proponents, hoping that it contains all their hopes and semi-conscious aspirations in one big can of wonderful data) are developed with the idea that once they are set up, the job is done. Yet it’s precisely when they are set up that the real job starts: keeping the system updated, relevant and interactive.

This is where you need to focus on who’s going to provide information, via which protocol or process, in what format, at what frequency, on what basis (remunerated or not – and if not why would they bother). What template (if any) will you provide for third parties to submit information, who will be quality checking it, who will be entering it and double-checking that it’s not duplicated etc.? And finally, who will be dealing with interactive content e.g. comments, questions, interactions etc.? If you build a system to be interactive and by chance there are interactions around that system, you need to be out there attending to them. Who will take care of it, on what basis, at what frequency etc.? It’s that kind of strategy that is likely to prevent your system from being another sad ghost town…

6. Make your system conversant with other initiatives

As part of your content strategy over the long run, using open data standards would be a useful decision to let others (re-)use your information, both when the system is up (to connect with other relevant information systems) and if/when it’s down for ever, i.e. closed, for others to use the legacy of your information system.

And while at that, you might want to document the process of using that system, to help others make use of your information and processes as best possible. So keep working out loud and get your system to work in a net rather than in a silo that will quickly sink to the bottom of our consciousness’s ocean…

7. Develop your glocal network and alliances

Finally, your system is part of an environment and the people in charge of it too. Make sure they weave links with relevant global and local organisations, networks and people, that the word gets out and that you test (and fail) that system at soonest and repeatedly, to find out how it is received by others and what needs to be tweaked – assuming that the system itself is of any use to someone.

As content or community managers, the people in charge will have to build alliances to extend the potential reach of the system, both to be used and to be fed/fuelled with regular information flows. And this once again takes a lot of time and effort, usually not planned and paid well – but this is the best way to keep your info town lively and the monster at bay…

And perhaps with all of this your system might reveal some usefulness, robustness, perhaps even some signs of sustainability?

Final considerations…

A final idea I gave my mate was to submit his work to a ‘peer assist‘ in our upcoming KM4Dev Ethiopia get-together so that he could pick our collective brains to go ahead with more informed ideas.

I’m still not convinced that such broad information systems should really come up in the first place (unless spearheaded by massive coalitions of respectable organisations that have decided to gang up – unfortunately that’s rare), though the question is not really about those information systems but rather about systemic expectation management… in itself that’s perhaps well worth a post in its own right. You reckon?

Related blog posts:


Published by Ewen Le Borgne

Collaboration and change process optimist motivated by ‘Fun, focus and feedback’. Nearly 20 years of experience in group facilitation and collaboration, learning and Knowledge Management, communication, innovation and change in development cooperation. Be the change you want to see, help others be their own version of the same.

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  1. Than you so much, Owen.This is by far more support than I expected when I asked your advice.I will ceratinly present it in our upcoming get-to-gether for a brief discussion.

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