Expert Voices: MIT’s Stuart Madnick on Information Management and the Agile Corporation

Stuart Madnick, a professor of information technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Business since 1972, has been thinking about how to get more value out of information longer than just about anyone. He began his career creating operating systems and studying software development, then moved on to co-direct or chair MIT’s research programs on productivity from information technology and total data quality management. In the meantime, he co-founded four high-tech companies. He’s enjoyed enough success to buy a 600 year-old castle in Northumbria, England, which he has run as a hotel for 20 years.

CIOs have devoted a great deal of effort to make their IT infrastructure more flexible and agile. Madnick argues their company’s information needs to be agile too. The challenge today, he says, is “to be able to use information for purposes we haven’t anticipated before and at speeds far faster than before.” Imposing standards and structure on data can’t do the job entirely: Too much information is unstructured, and standardizing all the data you have is impractical.

The solution, Madnick believes, lies in “aggregation” and “mediation”: finding and pulling together the information someone needs, whatever the source or how the data is structured, and standardizing it on the fly to suit the user’s preferences. Imagine a global comparison shopping Web site that scans Web sites for the best price, but reports back the price in the currency of your choice, with taxes and shipping costs, and you have an idea how this might benefit buyers. But this approach could, if successful, also give corporations the means to find answers to all sorts of unanticipated ad hoc queries, improving decision-making and responsiveness to changes in the business environment. Madnick and his fellow researchers at MIT’s DARPA-underwritten Context Interchange (COIN) project have been working for six years to develop the necessary technology. An edited version of Executive Editor Allan Alter’s interview with Prof. Madnick follows:

Next page: Bad Answers, Bad Decisions

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