Information Architecture and Business Strategy: An Evolving Relationship

Summary: The success of your business can depend on its digital environment. Information architecture can help determine the kind of digital place you want to build.

When we work with clients, we’re consistently met with situations where information architecture overlaps with business strategy and management. I’ve been thinking about this relationship more and more lately, and I’m being reminded it’s not a new thing.

A Bit of History

Back when the Web was first becoming relevant to business, a strange thing happened: parts of the world that businesses had taken for granted as separate started colliding, and connecting. The structures they’d lived in for so long were disrupted, allowing information, conversations, and transactions to move in ways few had imagined they ever would. The landscape shifted under their feet, so they needed new structures for the new landscape. This went beyond just organizing articles for publications, or products on e-commerce sites. It was about making new environments for new ways of doing business.

In my first big job as an information architect, one of my early clients was a mattress manufacturer. For generations, they’d made mattresses that they had distributed to retailers, who then sold them to the public. The manufacturer didn’t deal with the public, really, except for one notable exception: they’d been advertising to them for all that time, with carefully orchestrated messages that sounded friendly, even intimate. Their product was a bed, after all.

So when they put their contact information on their website, they were genuinely flummoxed when mattress owners and shoppers started calling and emailing them directly. In fact, they were so overwhelmed, they had to take the contact information down. They didn’t have enough people or the right processes for handling the traffic. The Web had closed the loop on their communication with the end-user.

Even the way the manufacturer’s employees talked about the world was affected. Whereas they were once able to use the word “customer” and always know they meant their retailers and resellers, they now had to qualify the term. And they also had to meet expectations that these “customers” had for their website, so they had to make it a place—a new architecture—for learning about mattresses, dealing with dissatisfied owners, and succumbing to the new reality of a two-way brand conversation. They had to change the expectations of their traditional customers (the retailers) in order to publish more detailed information about products on their site. But they also had to change the way they were working internally in order to meet these new demands.

The Impact of the Web on Business Models

At the time, I recall reading articles about this issue by two IA pioneers, Lou Rosenfeld and Peter Morville. Lou’s article was called “The Tail Wags the Dog.” Lou, in 1999, was describing how business models were shifting with the advent of the Web: “And, because the architect is trying to learn about something that doesn’t yet exist, it’s during this process that the architect and other members of the web team are forced to make decisions that affect the business model. In other words, the architecture often defines the business model.”

A year or so later, Peter followed up with “Information Architecture and Business Strategy,” where he explained that “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.” A key phrase there is “defining relationships”—connections and collisions, transactions and conversations, all needing new structures, places, and vocabularies for doing business.

New Challenges and New Architectures

I bring up these stories from the past to point out how information architecture and business strategy have been related since the earliest days of the commercial Web. The Internet and all its related technologies (mobile computing, digital services, etc.) have created new mediums that require more than just digital versions of old forms.

At TUG, we’re seeing clients going through a similarly exciting period, but it’s no longer about just “getting on the Web.” Instead, it’s about “what do we do next?” They’ve had websites, e-commerce, enterprise Web application platforms, and the rest of it for quite a while, but they’re now facing new challenges that come with it. A few example patterns we’re seeing:

  • The org now has multiple websites sprouting from multiple business lines, existing subsidiaries, or acquisitions, and it’s gotten top-heavy and out of control. They need to mature as an organization, and since so much of what they do is now on the Web, they need to integrate it all into a better foundation for moving forward.

  • The org has hit the limits of their business model and is inventing new ways of doing business on the Web, either with new products and services, or new ways to sell those products and services, or both. But their current digital “places” are too narrow and brittle, and can’t scale to accommodate the new relationships and activities required.

  • The org is needing to become more content-driven, with less emphasis on static boilerplate content and the occasional one-off campaign, and instead becoming an information resource with rich content that needs new architectures and content strategies for essentially becoming a small publisher in addition to their existing business model.

In all these cases, these changes wouldn’t have been possible without the Web. (Even if the new business model or service is combined to a mobile app, the app is still an organ of the wider Web ecosystem.) In fact, it’s the Web that has made these evolutions necessary.

And it’s impossible to figure out the shape of these new ways of doing business without figuring out the architectures necessary to do them. You can only create strategy in the abstract for so long until you run into questions about whether or not you need a new site, or a new area in your existing site, or how you can integrate new service lines into your internal CRM environment and service-representative software. Even something as (seemingly) simple as adding a subscription model to your e-commerce shop means figuring out whether and how users will be able to use your site’s existing checkout, or if it will require a new workflow. These are all the equivalent of deciding if you should add a wing to your existing office building, change the way you’re using the existing space, or architect a new building altogether.

Information Architecture Helps You Build a Digital Place for Your Business

Information architecture doesn’t drive business strategy, per se. It won’t tell you what sort of business you should be in, or if you should outsource part of your manufacturing, or if you should change to a matrix-based management structure. But increasingly, IA needs to be considered as an input to those decisions, because all of them require thinking through how the digital places where you do business have to change, structurally. The difference between success and failure—or if a new business approach is even possible—can depend on the shape, clarity, and resilience of those information environments.

Interested in learning more about how information architecture can you help you build a digital place for your customers? Contact us.