The Information Management Hierarchy of Needs

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In a 1943 paper, Abraham Maslow introduced a new theory on motivation that has subsequently been called “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.” His premise is that humans demonstrate patterns in motivation ranging from the most basic needs (physiological) through to self-actualization, and that the most basic needs must be fulfilled before someone has the ability to focus on higher-level needs. In other words, someone needs to have food, water and shelter before they are motivated to seek friendship, confidence and achievement.


Figure 1: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Physiological needs are the physical requirements for human survival. If these requirements are not met, the human body cannot function properly and will ultimately fail. Thus, these needs should be met first. With physical needs relatively satisfied, the individual’s safety needs take precedence and dominate behavior. The third level of human needs is interpersonal and involves feelings of belongingness and the desire to be accepted into a group. Next, esteem represents the typical human desire to be accepted and valued by others. People often engage in a profession or hobby to gain recognition. These activities give the person a sense of contribution or value. The last level is self-actualization. Maslow articulates this as man’s highest achievement of his personal desire and focus, “What a man can be, he must be.”

The reality is that people are often motivated by several of these factors at once. As well, many of us are lucky enough to have our most basic level of needs fulfilled from the time of birth. As such, “a want that is satisfied is no longer a want.” If hunger is satisfied, it becomes unimportant in the current dynamics of the individual. Therefore, people cease to be driven by the need for food, shelter or friendship but are instead driven by the need for respect from others or respect for oneself.

Maslow noted, not surprisingly, that people who have never experienced chronic hunger are likely to underestimate its impact and minimize its importance. If an individual is dominated by a higher need, this higher need will seem to be the most important. Maslow observed that individuals may even, for the sake of this higher need, put themselves into the position of being deprived of a more basic need. But this deprivation usually cannot last. For example, a man who chooses to quit what he feels is a demeaning job in order to maintain self-respect, but who then loses his home (safety) and starves for six months (physiological), may ultimately be willing to go back and take that “lesser” job even at the cost of losing his self-respect. Although he previously took food and shelter for granted, he has just realized the importance of these more basic needs over higher-level ones.

And this is when it struck me: Maybe the reason some companies seem to not value their data and/or information is that they have always had their basic data needs fulfilled! Companies that have had a data breach or a regulatory fine imposed are highly likely to assess how they manage and govern their information assets, but those that haven’t seem reluctant to do so! Ah-hah – now it makes sense!

If we re-create Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs into a Business Hierarchy of Needs, it might look something like Figure 2.

Figure 2: Business Hierarchy of Needs

A business cannot operate without employees, funding or information—or a mechanism to share it— and once those are in place, an organization’s next goal is to develop a product or service to market. We know that many companies with just infrastructure and output exist, but without revenue, the business will not be sustainable. Only after a company has revenue to keep it going can it then seek competitive differentiation through a strong business strategy, effective marketing and operational efficiency.  Likewise, only after a company has embraced a strategy of continuous innovation can it then transform itself into one that has the agility to reinvent itself as needed and not only make significant, positive impact to society but also survive over the long haul.

Corporations have created unique departments to manage most of the infrastructure (e.g., human resources to look after employees, finance to manage the balance sheet and funding, facilities to be responsible for office space, and IT to house information). Most companies do not lose sight of the value of employees, funding and facilities. They, in fact, frequently implement programs to improve those assets. But do all companies have programs in place to not only properly house information but also improve its quality and value to the company?

This is where both the challenge and the opportunity lie. Companies take for granted data and information. They assume that both will be accurate and available – until they’re not. In the same way that many people are rethinking the way they consume food as a basic need (i.e., nutrition and diet) that enables them to focus on higher-level needs and self-actualization, companies should rethink the way they manage data so that they take advantage of its usefulness and value now, before the quality has become so poor that it no longer enables the company to focus on its higher-level needs.

Many times the issues caused by poor data are not as acute as a regulatory fine or as public as a data breach. Usually, it is just a slow erosion of importance on the baser level need of information.  New systems are implemented to support new business initiatives without much thought on how data flows in and through those systems, while systems from acquired companies are not effectively integrated into parent systems, yet employees are integrated and roles change. Over time, companies can end up with dozens of officially “supported” systems and hundreds of “shadow” Access databases, all potentially housing customer/product/supplier information. As time goes on, companies glue this information together with point-to-point integration, manual intervention or by layering even more software on top. This leads to inefficient processes, slow systems, low productivity and a lack of control over who has access to what data when – and then comes the data breach.

In the same way that the man in the example recognized the value of food and shelter only after losing it, companies often fail to recognize the value of their information until it is too late. Instead, they must embrace that value and proactively manage and govern their information before their competitive differentiation or revenue is impacted.

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