itmWEB Research

An itmWEB Classic Whitepaper

The Politics of Information and Projects

Focus Area: Project Management for Systems Development

Author: Russ Finney

Year: 1998

Information is political. Controlling information can be power. Careers can be significantly impacted based on the perception of data results. People earn the living by simply being data creators. Failure to recognize these situations can be career limiting for the naive IS professional. Companies, departments, and individuals all have the potential to create different political structures to protect and control the management of their information assets. Thomas Davenport, Robert Eccles, and Lawerence Prusak in their Fall 1992 Sloan Management Review paper entitled, Information Politics, sited some useful examples of various political information structures:

Technocratic Utopianism

  • Heavy focus on information modeling and categorization of data
  • High value on emerging hardware utilization
  • Attempting to address an organization's entire information inventory

In this situation, the IS Department views itself as owning the data.


  • Everyone must fend for his or her self
  • High usage of individual personal computers
  • Very limited data sharing

Here, each employee considers his or her stash of data as a personal asset.


  • Information controlled by each individual department
  • Only limited information reported outside
  • Unique data vocabulary

In this case, data is tightly controlled within the department, and carefully reported outside the department.


  • Information management rules dictated by one executive
  • Control over information highly centralized

This can be viewed as a larger example of Feudalism, only with a clear king.


  • Information sharing is accomplished through negotiation

Information becomes a form of currency within the business.

A successful IS professional must determine which environment he or she is operating in - then be sensitive to the unwritten rules and act accordingly. Too often, an eager system builder begins to slip into a state that he or she is working toward the "greater good", and then lose sight of the information politics. Rather, the IS professional must work from the business client's perspective - even if the longer term objective is to move to a new information political state. Once the current political state has been identified, the politics of change can begin.

The System "Vision" Begins Here

John Naisbitt, in his book Re-Inventing the Corporation makes the observation that "people want to make a commitment to a purpose, a goal, a vision that is bigger than themselves - big enough to make them stretch and grow until they assume personal responsibility for achieving it". This is the objective of the System Builder. A vision must be created which will spark the imagination of those who are exposed to it. Not only must the vision be communicative, it must also seem achievable. The best way to create this level of confidence in the eyes of those who will eventually be the project sponsors and advocates, is to demonstrate genuine leadership and confidence.

One of the undeniable truths of system building is that leadership is guided by vision, and vision is a result of experience. A crucial factor in getting a systems effort initially off the ground, is the level of competence and experience possessed by the potential System Builders. Without question this is reflected in the vision the team presents to the potential sponsors. Usually "gut" instincts on the part of the business clients play a decisive role in further progress and continuation of the effort.

Champions, Advocates, and Sponsors

A project team cannot survive without business client support. This support must be multi-leveled, extending all the way from top management to the day-to-day business clients. Sustaining this support over a long-term project is a tremendous challenge for the team, and it can never be taken for granted. During the initial project approval process, three supporting client roles tend to develop over time. The really interesting thing about this support is that one or more business clients may assume one or more of these roles over the life of the project. All three of the roles are essential and they are described below:


This tends to be a high level business client who either has a definite stake in the results of the project, or who has a clear understanding of the long-term benefits of the system. This person wants the new system, and he or she is willing to put their organizational clout on the line for it! The system champion contributes a big part toward getting the project off the ground and into the planning phase. This is especially true if he or she is someone who carries a great deal of respect and credibility within the business organization.


An advocate tends to be a supporter of the project champion, but not someone who is an active campaigner for the new system itself. Advocates tend to be confirmers of the reasoning of the champion, and they may contribute concrete benefits in support of the development effort. Unless they are very high in the organization, champions have a hard time selling a new system by themselves. Advocates provide additional needed political support and backing to the overall approval effort. This support is especially effective if the advocates represent a sizable group of related business functions and interests.


The project sponsors, more often than not, end up being the executive management of the business area which will be footing the bill for the project. Sponsors may or may not have been involved as champions or advocates of the new system, but if the project is to succeed, they must be active supporters. The earlier in the approval process the project sponsors can be identified and actively involved, the more likely the project will become a reality. This involvement allows these critical sponsors to develop their own personal stake in the project outcome.

In many cases, the project sponsors may be members of an oversight committee, formed from representatives of the involved business departments. This arrangement is fine, as long as each committee member's role and purpose is made clear to everyone, right from the beginning. In many situations, it is still advantageous to have one, final decision making sponsor, who may or may not be a part of the oversight committee.

Depending on who, and how high, the sponsors are, John Galsworthy points out a truth worth remembering. His observation that "idealism increases in direct proportion to one's distance from the problem" tends to be especially true about those who support the birth of a systems project. Careful expectation setting must be exercised at this point in the process. Enthusiasm should not be dampened, but the temptation to exaggerate the eventual result should be kept in check. This is very true when dealing with high level decision makers who tend to view and remember promises in broad terms.