Information should be key to business success, but all too often it is a barrier. Liz Benison of Capgemini argues that a new, systematic approach to Business Information Management is the only way to solve the problem once and for all.

Life has surely never been harder for businesses or their CIOs as we emerge (let us hope!) from recession. Just to survive, organisations have had to become lean, which means cutting costs, budgets and jobs. At the same time, those who don't want to get left behind when the upturn comes must also be agile, which means being ready for the opportunities of a post-recession economy. But in today's world, planning for new initiatives, new investments or new markets can scarcely be done on the back of an envelope in one's spare time, with no people and no budget.

So the two priorities, lean and agile, might appear to be in conflict. Yet I am convinced from working with clients in many sectors and many parts of the world that effective Business Information Management (BIM) is the key that can resolve this apparent conflict - and be a real help to businesses seeking to meet today's massive challenges.

It must first be said that many businesses, especially at boardroom level, are far from satisfied with the information at their disposal for making important decisions. True, there has been a massive explosion in the sheer volume of data captured and stored by most enterprises. Likewise, many have made substantial investments in all kinds of miracle-cure IT systems - enterprise resource planning, business performance management, master data management, data warehouse, reporting tools etc etc. Yet we still hear on all sides complaints from CXOs that they can never lay hands on the information they really need, or not at the right time and in the right format. Information frequently exists in isolated ‘silos' and, too often, in inconsistent, even mutually contradictory, versions.

So what is going wrong? And is BIM just another miracle cure doomed, like all the rest, to disappoint and dissatisfy your top executives? In my view, far from it. First, BIM is emphatically not some new IT system. It is a radical approach to effective information management that for the first time puts information at the heart of the enterprise, and fully recognises its importance as a critical business asset. And it is one that is crucial to success, whether measured by profit or profit growth, as in the private sector, or by hitting targets and ‘doing more for less' as in the public sector. And it is an approach that acknowledges that managing information effectively is as much about people and processes as it is about technology.

The ideas behind BIM are common sense, not rocket science, but those organisations that have pioneered BIM ideas are reaping immense rewards from applying them. Those ideas follow a straightforward logical sequence:

Step 1 concerns Business Performance Management. It seeks to provide a consistent framework within which business decisions can be made with confidence, and which enables strategy to be translated into action. It puts the focus on accurate, usable metrics and on pinpointing those who will be responsible for producing, monitoring and achieving them.
Step 2 produces an Information Strategy with the focus on actively managing information to support better decisions. It puts in place processes for the governance of information, for its sharing inside and outside the organisation, and for ensuring that a single, consistent view is gained.
Step 3 involves a Solution Centre approach that ensures business and IT people work together to design, develop, deploy and support information across the organisation. It also addresses any skills deficiencies acting as roadblocks on the effective use of information, and any ‘cultural deficiencies' impeding appreciation of just how central information is to meeting business objectives.

With these steps in place, rational decisions can be taken on the IT systems and BIM tools that are required to support information deployment across the organisation. Ineffective and counter-productive investments can be avoided, as can the tendency, seen in many large organisations, of individual business units ‘going it alone' in deciding what information to produce, what metrics to measure, and what technology to install.

Many senior executives in all sectors are starting to say that while their businesses might be classified as retailer, or manufacturer or public services provider, in essence they are really in the business of managing information. Comparing successful with less successful organisations, it becomes clear that overcoming the business information challenge is key to success. To succeed as we emerge from recession, organisations need to be both lean and agile, and that means having a tight grip on business information, using it as a competitive weapon to thrive and grow even in times of turbulence.

The joined-up approach built into Business Information Management is going to prove more vital than ever in the next few years, at least to those determined to be lean enough to survive recession and agile enough to thrive post-recession.