Home » Archives » February 2012 » Communication and Information Theory: Not As Useless As They Seem?

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02/15/2012: "Communication and Information Theory: Not As Useless As They Seem?"

As I mentioned at the end of my previous post, I am seeing the importance of applying communication and information theory to my information management work. Now that I have started to help people and organizations to get their information under control, the theories that seemed rather useless in my freshman year of college are now quite applicable in the real world. If you are trying to mediate between people and their information systems, it is vital to learn how they are interacting and transmitting information, i.e. communicating so you can diagnose the problems before finding a solution.

Back in the day when I was a freshman at UMass Amherst (Go Minutemen!), I was a "Pre-Communications" major, which means that I got to take 100-level Communications classes in a smaller setting. Although I enjoyed learning about it, and the instructor I had for my second semester really made the material interesting, I didn't see that learning about how people communicated was applicable to anything in the real world (which I obviously knew so much about). I later became a journalism major and nearly switched to computer science before eventually transferring to another college where I got a film degree.

When I went back to graduate school a couple of years ago, I wanted to study information management, which I describe as a combination of information science, computer science and business. This allows you to see things in a way so you can help organizations solve their information management problems. If computer scientists are engineers, they are the ones that build the actual structures, the "information pipes," and information managers are the ones who control the flow of the information through the "pipes." In order to do this, you have to be able to act as a translator and mediator between the IT and non-IT parts of an organization; to understand the information requirements of the system users and be able to explain them to the system administrators in order to build the solution (or build it yourself).

In the early 21st century, we are approaching a point where we have built these information systems and set them up so they will collect all this data, but what are we doing with it? Organizations that are able to harness the data and turn it into information will have a serious competitive advantage moving forward over those who prefer to keep it in silos.

One of our first required classes was IMT 510, "Human Aspects of Information Systems" and was taught by one of the senior professors in the University of Washington's iSchool. In this class we learned about information theory and how to conduct academic research. Some of the students in my cohort, which was made up of many people who were already established professionals in their field, questioned the need for this class. I saw many parallels, however, with my Communications classes of yore, and decided to go along for the ride.

The class turned out to be one of the most useful during my time at the iSchool, as it helped me to understand how vital it is if you are trying to modify an information system is to first observe how the information is currently being transmitted. I used the knowledge that I gained from IMT 510 in many of my other classes as well as on my thesis project.

Once I got out in the real world, I noticed it was just as, if not more applicable. For one of my first consulting projects, I am working with an organization that needs to migrate their data into a CRM (Customer Relationship Management) system. Their organization has reached the point where they have too much data in too many different systems and there may be only one person who understands each one. In order for my partner and I to properly consult them on what they needed to do to undertake this project, we had understand how the systems they are currently using work, what was information was most important to them, and what they wanted the new system to do. In order to do this, we had to do a lot of user interviews and use the systems ourselves. I have heard that not all consultants use this method, but how would you know how to solve someone's information problem if you don't know how they do their work? I suppose if one were a technical expert in a particular field you might just tell them what to do, but will doing so create a sustainable long-term solution?

I'm just starting out in this field, and there have been people who have been designing information systems for years, and am by no means an expert, technical or otherwise. I am just a person who is finally beginning to realize how vital it is to take into account how people actually communicate and transmit information when you are designing information systems, and that I have been interested in these questions for quite a long time without even knowing it.

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February 2012

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