While it’s not normally viewed as a time constraint by executives, the human ability to digest information is limited, and that digestion is a contributor to the cycle time of information management. Executives often want information faster, but they don’t really think about their role in slowing the cycle time of decision making. The distinguished social scientist James March found in one study that executives tend to request much more information than they actually use in decision making. That suggests that executives should count their own deliberation time in any analyses of how long it takes to get information needed to make decisions.
Given these obstacles, it’s highly unlikely that all information can be delivered instantaneously. However, some information can be sped up. Therefore, it’s important for senior executives to identify the information they need more quickly and flexibly, and the time frame in which they need to receive it. Even if acquiring information required no effort and always took place in real time, consuming it would take time and attention — so making all information available all the time isn’t a good idea even if it were possible.
Identifying the information needed quickly is particularly important now because technology for rapid information delivery has benefited from several recent advances. The underlying data for fact-based decisions is much more prevalent today, and the technologies for displaying and analyzing it have improved considerably. In many cases, the net result of these technologies is that executives can do more of their own query and analysis, and need not wait more than a second or two for the results. That leads to an entirely different perspective on and process for information delivery. Consumption of the information is made more likely by the very fact that the manager has requested it; the information has been pulled rather than pushed. Again, however, the underlying processes for information provision must also be addressed.
Human and organizational capabilities for information delivery are also advancing, but (as they usually do) at a slower pace. Information delivery to support decision making has been a “craft” activity, but it needs to become industrialized — with standard processes and measures of cycle time and quality. The first step is often organizational. Many companies, for example, have established internal groups to support business intelligence activities (known as business intelligence competency centers, or BICCs). Other organizations, such as Procter & Gamble, have re-oriented the primary purpose of their IT organizations to emphasize the provision of information and analysis for decision making. P&G now calls its IT organization Information and Decision Solutions, and is currently working on increasing the speed of information in specific areas of the business. Cisco Systems has defined and re-engineered the process for information delivery and analysis — including data preparation and reporting — and that has dramatically cut the time needed to enable a decision.
While we’re not at the stage where all information is provided in “real time,” we are able to provide some information at that speed. However, delivering information at a much higher frequency will require considerable resources. Therefore, it’s important to identify the particular information that needs to be delivered rapidly. As one CEO we interviewed put it, “In the best of all possible worlds you’d have a timetable for each piece of information.”