Peter Morville's bi-weekly column on the evolving definition of information architecture

Information Architecture and Business Strategy

A few years ago, we had an uncomfortable consulting experience with a dysfunctional business unit of a Fortune 100 corporation.

We had completed an evaluation of their existing web site and were in the process of presenting our recommendations to a group of senior managers. Half-way through the presentation, Joy, an inappropriately named vice president of the business unit, began to attack our whole project as a misguided effort. The thrust of her assault can be summed up in the following question:

"How can you design an information architecture when we don't have a business strategy?"
Unfortunately, we didn't have the understanding or vocabulary at the time to clearly address this question. This ignorance doomed us to a half-hour of suffering, as Joy cheerfully pulled out our fingernails.

Now, it turned out that her hidden agenda was to get us to write a blunt executive summary (which she could then pass to her boss), stating that if this business unit didn't have more time and resources, their web efforts would fail.

She was asking the right question for the wrong reasons. We were more than happy to satisfy her request for a brutally honest executive summary (connecting the dots between our IA and their BS) and we managed to escape the relationship with only a few bruises.

The more permanent outcome of this engagement was a personal conviction that information architects need a good understanding of business strategy and its relationship to information architecture.

A Symbiotic Relationship

Business strategy and information architecture are closely inter-related. For most organizations, the days of slapping a web site on top of an existing business strategy are gone. Web sites, extranets, and intranets play key roles in defining relationships between a company and its customers, investors, suppliers, and employees. The structure and organization of these sites is critical to success.

For this reason, it's silly to get caught up in the chicken-and-egg problem. You don't need a fully-formed business strategy to begin developing an information architecture strategy.

In fact, we've found that defining an information architecture strategy is a wonderful way to expose gaps in business strategy. The process forces people to ask difficult questions and make hard decisions they've previously managed to avoid.

Last year, Lou Rosenfeld made the provocative argument that information architecture can become the tail that wags the dog. While I have seen the situations Lou describes, where information architects are driving (or being asked to drive) business strategy, I think this is quite scary and ultimately a bad idea.

The leaders and managers of the corporation should play a major role in defining and driving business strategy. For the most part, the information architects should embrace and extend that business strategy, but they should also have the opportunity to ask questions and provide feedback. This feedback loop is critical to a healthy, symbiotic relationship.

Striking Similarities: The Iceberg Problem

One way to better understand business strategy is to look for similarities to information architecture. Both areas are complex, abstract, and commonly misunderstood.

As I read Geoffrey Moore's new book, Living on the Fault Line, it struck me that these two areas both suffer from the iceberg problem.

While business strategies and information architectures run deep, people tend to focus their attention on the parts above the water line. That is, they see only the tip of the iceberg.

Let's first take a look at business strategy, or more specifically in this case, competitive advantage.

Moore makes the point that while people tend to focus on the top layer of differentiated offerings (e.g., topics like branding and positioning), you can only achieve lasting competitive advantage by building from the bottom up.

The same is true of information architecture. Many web site owners still focus on the glamour of fully-designed web pages, without any understanding of the underlying components.

More savvy site owners know enough to look just beneath the water line, understanding the important role that information architecture blueprints and wireframes play in site design.

However, relatively few site owners realize the critical role the lower layers play in establishing a solid foundation. It is this ignorance of the elements of deep information architecture that drives many short, superficial and ultimately doomed design projects.

A Hidden Opportunity

The iceberg problem creates a real opportunity for information architects and for corporations.

The smart information architects are learning all they can about business strategy and its relationship to information architecture. This will only increase their competitive advantage and ability to command a high income. Towards that goal, I highly recommend reading Geoffrey Moore's Living on the Fault Line and Patricia Seybold's

The smart corporations are learning that by taking the time to develop a deep information architecture, starting with the components below the water line, they are able to achieve a nearly invisible competitive advantage.

By the time their competitors see (what the Episcopalians call) the outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, it's too late. By the time Borders Books & Music realized the power of Amazon's information architecture, they were already years behind. This had a not-so-invisible impact on their stock price.

My advice? Think carefully about how your company can leverage the relationship between information architecture and business strategy to achieve competitive advantage. The cost of ignorance can be titanic.

End Notes

What do you think about IA and BS?

Please send your rants and raves to Peter Morville.

Subscribe to our bi-weekly newsletter for notification of new articles.

If you'd like to bookmark this column use this and if you'd like to bookmark this article use that.