Claire Green explains how quality information control (QIC) can help prevent information overload, reduce executive stress and give firms a competitive advantage.

The unprecedented growth of online services such as America Online and Compuserve, coupled with the advent of the personal computer has exposed virtually everybody to the concept of seeking information online. As a result, the natural distinction between corporate roles has blurred somewhat with individuals taking responsibility for their own research, marketing and electronic investigation.

The trickle-down effect of this blurring is most evident in the changing role and position of the corporate information officer or researcher. Traditionally, this role is held by a qualified information professional whose job is to monitor industry trends, advise on relevant issues and provide decision support literature to enable the business production and servicing departments to do their jobs better than their competitors.

The key tools for this role have been predominantly found in the on-line hosted database market with products such as Lexis/Nexis, Reuters, FT Profile and Dow Jones which use command languages and require a degree of expertise on the part of the searcher. However, responding to the changing dynamics of the information world, these host providers have begun to introduce end-user mentality to their systems with the result that searching is now often menu-driven and uses natural language type interfaces to allow virtually anyone to conduct a search.

While there was some concern in the information profession initially that these developments would cause the demise of the "gatekeeper", the actual effect has been to place a higher value on this role within the organisation, and the gatekeepers have seen a resultant rise in their value and respect.

Corporate executives have now found that while the searching part of the information process is undoubtedly as easy for them to complete at their own desks as it is to create a request for the researcher to do it, the actual retrieval and subsequent manipulation of the items found require skills that are the "foundation stone" of the information professional and not the business executive, whose role should be the application of the information found to a specific business decision, not on finding the information in the first place.

Information overload

The sheer amount of data that is available on the internet (over 100 million documents) means that the average searcher often finds more than he/she bargained for. The simplicity of search engines on the internet compounds this problem, because they are designed to search for any and all conceivable hits without applying any great intelligence as to the relevance or quality of the information.

For example, a search to find the meaning of the word "confusion" using the AltaVista search engine generated 66,140 results, the first 30 of which seemed to bear no relevance to the search string - how confusing!

Therefore, the issue of information overload becomes vitally concerning. Overload causes paralysis, and an organisation can grind to a halt quickly if its executives are busy searching for the ultimate answer to their question and, in the process gathering everything and anything on the topic, rather than applying themselves to the effective use of some of the information that is available.

This is where the gatekeeper really demonstrates value for money and where organisations who employ an information management strategy effectively set themselves apart from the competition.

Effective results: less frustration

With a broad understanding of the principles of the industry in which they operate, the corporate researcher or information officer is uniquely placed to act as the filter for information coming into the organisation. By using their accredited professional skills, they can generate more effective results more quickly and with a minimum level of stress and frustration.

The skills of analysis and interpretation mean that the filter does not simply cull the information hits but instead provides a precise and summarised document highlighting the key points of a topic and generating questions of a more detailed and structured nature. Ultimately this leads to a more refined business solution.

All this can be achieved if the organisation does, indeed, have an information management strategy that includes the employment of an information professional and the necessary resources to allow that person access to the wealth of online data that exists.

If these two key features are in place, then the organisation has taken the first steps to positioning itself at the leading edge of corporate intelligence. By knowing where information can be found and how to collect and collate it, by applying relevancy assessments of the information and by interpreting and commenting on the results, the researcher has already cut away many of the peripheral issues that hamper business development in today's corporate environment.

Consider the fact that the first port of call for individuals researching a topic is the internet with its 100 million documents. Despite the fast search engines, a great deal of time is spent sifting through swathes of (often irrelevant) data to get to one or two potential leads. The effort and the time spent looking for them and then the time spent to complete due diligence to ensure that the source is real and authoritative forces the business decision to take a back seat. The corporate researcher, on the other hand, is used to working with systems such as Lexis/Nexis (which offers access to 417 million documents) and interrogating this quickly and efficiently before moving on to the next product in the suite of tools that are available to locate business information. The frustration and concerns of information overload experienced by the "lay searcher" are managed by the information professional, in the same way as other executives manage their schedules.

Information management strategy

Information management strategies are particularly relevant in the insurance and reinsurance industries, where the cycle of soft rates and industry consolidation is causing competitive concerns. Given that there are few what could be called new products in the market and little likelihood of a revolution akin to the Direct Line invasion of the insurance market, something else has to set this industry apart and it would seem that in today's information-hungry arena, information management could just be the key.

So what exactly is meant by information management strategy? Basically, it involves the creation of a corporate-wide programme to manage and maintain the information flows of an organisation.

The most productive strategies use a gatekeeper as the filter control, who, with his/her professional contact networks brings a wider and different perspective to the organisation.

These networks are vital for gatekeepers to keep abreast of developments in their industry, which will assist in the business decision making of the organisation in which they work. They help to establish the reputation and the professionalism of the industry and organisations who indirectly are affiliated with them through their gatekeeper reap the benefits of being seen to be information-conscious.

Quality information control

By using a quality information control (QIC) programme, which is a natural part of developing an information management strategy, companies can significantly enhance their profile and develop their business with a greater degree of professionalism and expertise.

The key to the QIC programme is its ability to identify quickly and securely sources of interest and value, to assess the authority and acceptance level of these sources, to take datafeeds from them (this might also include hard-copy journals and books, conversations at meetings and seminar notes) and to reassemble all the disparate elements into one cohesive package which can then be customised according to individual users' needs within the organisation.

The core values of the QIC programme ensure that data are collected comprehensively and consistently and that they are always current and updated regularly. The added value to the QIC programme is the intuitive and analytical base which is used to ensure that the information is readable; much of the data that can be pooled from disparate resources often seems unintelligible until a "spin" of this nature has been put on it. The summarisation and customisation of the data is, therefore, paramount in the QIC programme. In addition, the programme allows users to decide on which issues or topics they want to receive regular alerts, so that they can be assured that they are always abreast of the latest developments in their area of interest.

The overall flavour of the QIC programme is the collation and collection of data from a variety of ephemeral sources, the manipulation and interpretation of that data to turn it into information and finally, dissemination of the package - the information spin, from the organisation to its public, to its shareholders, the press, analysts and, above all, its customers and potential customers.

This concept applies equally to the provision of information. The natural complement to seeking information is providing information, and vast amounts of money have been spent by the financial services industry, in the design, creation and implementation of websites detailing their corporate structure, philosophy, management and performance.

However, quite simply, many of these sites just add to the noise on the net. While executives seek quality information, they do not often apply the same rules of quality to the information they generate themselves. Lou Gestetner (chairman of IBM) once said: "The most important, most valuable, most sought-after content in the world belongs to corporations and large institutions. It's created and collected every minute around the world: intellectual property, designs, market intelligence, supply and demand, customer trends."

Yet there is no real way of harnessing this knowledge and intuition within a company to use it for strategic advantage unless an information management strategy is in place, which must be fully supported at board level.

Quality information control is THE buzzphrase for the future -controlling and ensuring the quality of information received by business managers and personnel and, conversely, controlling the quality of information distributed by the organisation.

If a company can successfully achieve this balance of "quality in" and "quality out" through the use of its own electronic gatekeeper using a well defined and progressive information management strategy, then not only does the information industry flourish, but the cycle of business development and continued advancement continues to ensure the prosperity of global commerce in the 21st century.

Claire Green is the London based group managing director for William R. Storie & Co Ltd (Bermuda). She was previously the senior researcher at Lloyd's of London where she was responsible for the provision of research services to the London market and business development adviser to many market players. Tel: +44 (0) 1737 246676; fax: +44 (0) 1737 247667;