By Hagen Guttchen

Tapping into information and its value is key to the competitiveness of a company. For knowledge workers in the company, there must be better – ideally automated – ways to achieve this goal in the future, for example in the form of a software solution for document management or enterprise content management. But is self-regulation of information management within the company using a kind of social-media approach enough? Or do we need organizational control of the path from today’s information to tomorrow’s competitive advantage – a kind of lean management against information overload?

Information with character

The selection and fast retrieval of relevant information sources is a basic building block for solid information management, especially in times of ever increasing volumes of information. However, how the individual content is to be evaluated from the point of view of the respective user is contentious. When it comes to distribution motivation or suitable search mechanisms, knowledge management experts like to refer to work instructions and tools (such as an ECM system), as well as praise or evaluation mechanisms (gamification)[1].

There is broad agreement that a certain informational value has an individual character. This means that the factual value of information is usually only determined after the fact based on its intended use. This often leads to the conclusion that business documents and data need only be “thrown in front of” the internal digital social community. The users then regulate the value of the information themselves – the collective intelligence virtually takes over the decision. But is such an “invisible hand” really enough?

Knowledge advantage through self-regulation?

The “invisible hand” (term coined by Adam Smith) is a common concept in economics. In short, it describes the self-management of the economy via supply and demand based on individuals acting only for their own maximum benefit. Developed further from the acknowledged market and competition theory (e.g. summarized by Michael Kleinaltenkamp), we know that successful entrepreneurship is based on innovation and thus on a knowledge advantage. The market leader either knows better or more precisely what its market (niche) needs or how it can offer it more cost-effectively with a higher margin. Added to this is the time factor, which uses the concept or “knowledge” factor to generate the decisive “knowledge advantage.”


Can this basic thesis of the self-regulating market really be applied to the management and trading of information? After all, we often speak – without flinching – of self-optimization and the knowledge economy. The latter already refers to the above-mentioned competitive advantage through knowledge. If so, what would supply, demand, and the price or value of information be in the world of information? And how could this be used to optimize information management in the company?


Let’s take a closer look at the individual points:


  • In companies, information is explicitly offered by employees who are obliged to do so: through their role (specialist departments, marketing, accounting, organization, etc.) or through a process manual or work instruction.
  • It is to be expected that everyone in the company will ask for information. Which information is sought and to what extent depends heavily on the field of work of each individual within an economy based on the division of labor and on the form of organization (hierarchy, process organization, etc.).
  • A price should be a controlling corrective that can be clearly evaluated by all parties involved – in other words, a kind of currency. In the case of information, this currency could take the form of recognition, praise and criticism mechanisms, or incentives.

Thinking into the future

Ultimately, however, the decisive factor is probably the question of optimization. The ever-increasing flood of information sooner or later “forces” organizations and companies to use a centralized, digital information platform – such as an ECM system. But what do the organization and the individual employee do with the possibilities that such a system provides? Is it really enough if every employee or knowledge worker simply enters their description or criteria for each piece of information?

For example, when a colleague stores documentation in the ECM system, it may be difficult for them to specify the value of this information to a future user. Who can know who will be looking for a 150-page project documentation, when, for what purpose, and with what keywords, and how valuable this item will be for them? Self-regulation of information in a network of people quickly reaches its limits. Behind the “invisible hand” are actual people, employees, colleagues – all with their own worlds of thought and therefore different criteria according to which they may classify something.

Hierarchical or chaotic storage

Generating a competitive advantage from information therefore requires regulatory support – at both a technical and organizational level. Technically this means, for example, that information must be stored somehow and somewhere so that it can be found. One possibility for this is “flat” storage, which is not bound to any structure (chaotic organization). In order to be found, individual bits of information must be reassembled ad hoc at the user’s request. This means that more time is required for the information search – to ask the question correctly and to repeat it iteratively if necessary.

The other option is a hierarchical organization of information with reference to the information source (supplier, process, project, etc.). This requires more care and a little more time for filing, but makes it possible to find the information quickly by means of a targeted, i.e. process-oriented, search. Such a reference to the location of a document also allows the searcher to take a quick look beyond their own backyard, in other words, they may find valuable information that they would not have searched for otherwise.

Information follows process chains

An ECM system can map both types of storage. The way you choose depends on the company in question, its objectives, and the industry. In my opinion, however, structured filing offers a number of advantages. Especially when information management follows the organization or process chains in the company.

Anyone wanting to make use of information gains must ensure through organizational means that information distribution becomes obligatory in the company. One advantage of structured filing systems, like an ECM system, is that you can control the necessary tasks (record management) and documentation distribution in the respective information context – with all the modern digital options such as filtered views, push information, and electronic workflows.

An ECM system is therefore an indispensable tool for task management and for fulfilling the necessary information obligations in the context of your knowledge management. Only in this way can relevant information be distributed in a titrated way without unnecessarily increasing the volume of information.

Knowledge does not come from data alone. The knowledge pyramid shows how ECM can be used to turn unstructured data into information management. (Source: OPTIMAL SYSTEMS)

A step on the knowledge ladder


Enterprise Content Management can thus help companies – at least operationally – to take a step up the “knowledge ladder” (according to Prof. Klaus North, 1998, RheinMain University of Applied Sciences) in information management. Everything beyond that still requires the competences of the employees. However, a good knowledge base is indispensable. If you have this, you can potentially act competently in order to perhaps be a little better than the rest in the competition. Explicit information management should ensure knowledge distribution and selection.

It should also be noted that a company organization is not a microcosm of an economy in which information distribution can be regulated virtually autonomously. Quite the opposite: part of a company’s success – also as part of flexibility and economies of scope – continues to be the division of labor and specialization in strategic corporate goals. These can be optimized through a well-structured information organization and targeted action. Alongside a good technological basis, information management belongs to those strategic core tasks like staff and asset management. An ECM system is extremely helpful and offers the necessary foundation for this, but does not release us from managerial competence for organization and information.


[1] Source: Berger, B.S.: Anreize und Anreizsysteme für ein Wissensmanagement: Theoretische Grundlagen und Gestaltungsempfehlungen (2003)