Understanding the Hierarchy of Information Needs

I have always been fascinated by Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. In 1943, Abraham Maslow offered a theory called “A Theory of Human Motivation” in which he suggested human needs followed a specific hierarchy.

The basic concept is the higher needs in this hierarchy only come into focus once all the needs lower down in the pyramid are mainly or entirely satisfied.

Maslow’s hierarchy has five levels:

  • Level One includes the physiological needs such as food, water, air, etc.
  • Level Two includes safety needs such as shelter and clothes;
  • Level Three is considered sense of belonging and satisfies needs such as love, friendship, and group affiliation;
  • Level Four is Esteem where self esteem and esteem from others are prominent; and
  • on top of the hierarchy is Actualization where achieving one’s full potential will satisfy all needs.
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    For example, based on this theory, a human cannot focus on love until his hunger and thirst are satisfied and he has found a shelter. All good, but what does this have to do with organizations, you ask? Well, a lot.

    I believe organizations also follow the same hierarchy as far as information is concerned. Understanding this knowledge could prioritize the approach organizations take in delivery of information to their workers and provide IT departments a blueprint for providing the needed information to their organizations.

    But, before getting to detailed analysis of an organization’s information needs, it is important to examine the history and current state of IT departments in organizations:

    For the past 40 years or so, IT departments have operated backwards. Why? Because our focus in IT departments have been applications and not information. We have hired loads of programmers and software architects, and just a few data professionals. Our chief information officers are ex-programmers and/or infrastructure specialists; not information specialists.

    We have built great state-of-the-art applications that can handle thousands of transactions per second, but they deliver low-quality information to users. In short, data has been secondary to application in most IT organizations.

    Signs of Change

    In the past few years, however, I am starting to see a shift in this space. It is now, in the new millennium, when organizations are starting to shift focus from applications to information.

    They are forming enterprise data architecture groups within IT departments, paying attention and allocating budgets for concepts such as master data management, data integration, knowledge management, and business intelligence. And, all-in-all, recognizing the vital organizational asset is the information and not the appliance delivering it.