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Computer-based Information Centre on Organizations and Entities

Criteria, Coding, Processing Requiements and System Implications (Part #1)

Annex VII to the report entitled: Need for a world management information network -- to assist initiation and coordination of global development programmes. This Annex was also distributed as Criteria, Coding, Processing Requiements and System Implications for a Computer-based Information Centre on Organizations and Entities

Design criteria
Entities included
Comments on other possible entities
Entity description and card types
Relationship between dependent, independent, continuing and temporary entities
Entity identification numbers
Card coding system
Geographical codes
Name cards
Extracts from PRIO coding
Special coding for entity types
Geographic link cards
Inter-entity link cards
Processing requirements
System implications

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Design criteria

The following factors guided decisions on the design of the file:

1. The file structure should not stress unnecessarily the difference between types of organization (or link between organizations) since, whatever definitions are used, different types blend into one another on some dimensions whilst being distinct on others. Similarities between types may be greater than diferences. Accepted and conventional distinctions should be possible but should not distort the file structure. This is the only possible means of making the file useful to a wide variety of researchers and decision-makers interested in the functions performed by overlapping classes of organization.

2. A sequential file of data on organizations is completely insufficient in terms of resent and expected future demands for information. The file musttherefore provide means of showing the links between organizations. This form of cross-referencing within the file is the first step towards representing a variety of 'flows' between organizations.

3. A network file structure can therefore be conceived as made up of nodes and links. The nodes can be organizational entities of any kind, programmes independent of any particular organization, treaties, meetings, etc. The links, whether input or output, are the channels along which the node receives (or transmits) information, funds, non-financial aid, recommendations, etc. Such links may also represent the memberships relationship of 'members' of the node. Links in this general sense can also represent consultative, collaborative, informal and other relationships as necessary.

4. The network file structure should facilitate use of an adaptation of the network and input/output analysis techniques employed in operational research and analysis of electrical networks. Since these techniques have not yet been adapted to this use, the consequences for the file design are simply to separate, to the extent possible, coding relating to node characteristics (static) from those relating to link performance (frequency, volume, type). Provision should be made for the inclusion of coding which world reflect the maximum number of dimensions along which communication and collaboration can break down. The objective of this type of approach is to maximize the possibility of constricting models which would be partly quantitative and predictive as suggested by Karl Leutsch (Nerves of Government, p.126-7):

'A part of this development would be the application of cybernetic concepts to the system, making larger and more explicit use of time variables as well as of probabilistic and statistical considerations. This would mean, among other things, the measurement or estimation of the extent and probable distribution of imbalances in the transaction flows, of the corresponding loads upon the equilibrating or adjusting mechanisms in the subsystems; of the lags, gains, and leads in their responses; and hence of the probable stability and future states of the entire system and its parts.'

5. Associated with the long-term requirement of systematic network analysis is the simplerrequirement that the file structure should facilitate detection of weaknesses (as defined by the user) in coordination or communication between organizations concerned with the same or related problem areas, in order that such bodiescould be notified of each others activities.

6. Aside from the problem of distinctions between organizations based on conventional definitions of formal organization types, similar problems arise in attempting to distinguish between permanent bodies and temporary bodies, and between independent and dependent or internal bodies (within an organizational structure

A temporary structure such as an independent meeting or a programme may be considered to have an important integrative effect starting from the time it is proposed (and papers are called for) to the time the report or recommendations are finally available as a stimulus to further effort. The complete cycle may in seme cases be up to 10 years or more. This exceeds the life of many formal. constituted 'permanent bodies'. In addition, the borderline between a meeting and an organization, particularly if the meeting forms part of a series and has an informal continuing committee, can only be arbitrarily established.

In the case of independent and dependent bodies, it was again decided that, whatever the degree of autonomy, the file structure should permit, if necessary, treatment of the entity in question as a node in the network. This avoids the unsatisfactory procedure of preestablishing the sub-system boundaries and thus predetermining what is system-external and what is system-internal. The location of sub-system boundaries may itself be an important research objective. In addition, this draws attention to the fact that although communication and coordination between an outside organization and some subsidiary body may be eminently satisfactory, there is no guarantee that the relationship between the central body and the subsidiary body is satisfactory. A sub-sub-system of sub-system A may be affected by a sub-system Bwithout sub-system A as a whole being significantly affected. This has many important consequences.

7. A consequence of the decision not to restrict attention to particular types of organization is that arbitrary definitions of 'international', 'national', 'regional', 'local' or 'governmental', 'non-governmental', 'commercial', etc. are avoided. This permits a researcher to establish his own definitions of such sub-systems with a maximum amount of flexibility.

This is in line with the conclusions of Andrew M.Scott (The Functioning of the International Political System) that the nation-stages are no longer the only significant actors on he international political scene. The file design should facilitate the systems approach suggested by him which would 'help overcome the sharp separation between domestic affairs and international politics, because it operates equally well at either level and can move between the two.'

8. Most information systems are designed as means of speeding up the processing, storage and retrieval of documents. Because of the high volumes involved, such systems are very costly and where they are less costly, this is only achieved by a considerable degree of specialization in order to reduce the volume. To avoid this dilemma and yet optimize information on the world system as a whole, it was decided to concentrate on the producers of information rather than the, information produced in document form.

The information producing and processing points in the world system are organiz ations of one kind or another. These represent the points at which decisions and control activity regarding the production of information occurs. A focus on suchpoints therefore maximizes the possibility of obtaining a clear, overall picture of the world system. Such a picture is an essential basis for management type decisions concerning the allocation of resources.

A management information system requires information on bodies controlling, evaluating, formulating, and implementing programmes, and coordinating memberships (in thebroadest sense), relationships and information networks linking them to problem areas. It is therefore focussed on the coordination achieved and necessary for current and planned or proposed activities. A documentation information system concentrates on on the information produced when it eventually appears in published form,

The first is focuesed on the initiating points for present and future activity whilst the second is focussed on the published record, if any, of past activity. The fact that one organisation can coordinate the production of many documents in the context of one programme, isan indication of the volume of information in each case, the scale of the problem in each case, and the cost of each type of system. Most important though, is that it illustrates the relatively much higher value of information on the current programmes of organizations.

Intermediate between these extremes, is Information on sources of information produced in document form (e.g. bibliographies of bibliographies, directories ofperiodicals, etc.) which can be incorporated in a management information system, since it reprerents the key to information collecting points and systems in a particiular problem area. Such ch information is of relatively much higher value if it is produced regularly within a series rather than as a one-off publication.

The file structure is therefore deliberately not orientated toward the solution of the documentation problem and the associated 'information explosion'. Such solutions imply the retrievability within a 'reasonable' period of time of an optimum number ofpast relevant documents on a subject. A management information system implies - he immediate availability of information on all currently active bodies, programmes and information networks with in the world system. It can, to some extent, predict future document production.

The emphasis on the management approach is based on the view that even if document information system can provide an optimum selection of relevant material on a problem, this does not facilitate the solution to many important subsequent problems. Specifically:

  • decision-makers are increasingly in a position in which they can no longer afford the time to wait for libraries and information centres to complete the documentation retrieval cycle. Having received a pile of documents, they are no longer in a position to read and assimilate all the information supplied. Not only does the time factor come into play, but also the problem for the decision-maker of determining the relevance of analytical results based on the techniques and assumptions of disciplines with which he is not familiar. If the are 'foreign' to him, his inclination to use them, will be low, even if he studies the results in detail. This is a major problem in the utilization of research implications for policy formulation.
  • a request for documents is specific. The documents received are the answer to the request, They do not automatically supply an operational context for the problem area in question, particularly where it may cross specialist or jurisdictional boundaries. The documentation information system is 'blind' to this approach, particularly when set up within a specialist organization with an accession profile designed to minimize acquisition of material from other fields. The more general the request, the more material supplied which must be interpreted, restructured and assimilated.
  • the response of a documentation information system is a response from the past and cannot take into account current developments (even the lag between production and publication of a journal article may be several years).
  • a documentation system is not dynamic. It cannot permit analyses which could signal probable problem areas. The decision-maker is therefore dependent on historical reports to detect a problem, unless it hasreached crisis level and been reported through not documcntary channels across the accepted jurisdictional boundaries.

A major requirement for a management information is that it be highly structured, eliminate non-significant data in order to highlight problem areas and areas requiring decisions. It should also relate a problem area to associated problem areas across discipline and jurisdictional boundaries. It should indicate the location of resources and the channels through which they could advantageously be moved. An attempt should therefore be made in designing the file structure to facilitate the development of techniques of this kind.

9. Another approach to the analysis of the world system is through the use of political and social indicators based on statistical analysis of the relationship between key variables in a manner analogous to that used for economic indicators. Major difficulties associated wit) this approach are cost, comparability of data collected in different countries and ensuring regular updating.

This approach provides indications of conditions of clearly defined classes either by national, regional or local averages. It does not tie these conditions directly to the organizational structures within society by which they can be modified and tends to gloss over the structure of sub-systems and communication within and between them. Thus although primary problems can be detected, the detection of secondary problems is not facilitated e.g. the structural weaknesses which obstruct the effective recognition of, or implementation of solutions to primary problems (nor does it facilitate the detection of structural strengths by which solutions can be speeded up).

The greater the emphasis placed on structural elements within the world system and dynamic relationships between them, the greater should be the practical value of the file when set up. The incorporation of general political and social indicators was therefore envisaged but only as a part of the node or link description coding.

10. The file design should not be an attempt at model building but should rather provide the elements from which a wide variety of partial or general models could be built. It should, be left to the researcher to define the classes into which he wishes to group entities for model building purposes.

The advantage of this approach is that an attempt is made to include as many different types of entity as can be detected. The researcher is therefore forced to explicitly exclude certain types of entity when building partial models, rather than merely neglect certain types of entity because their significance has not been brought to his attention

11. Additional factors governing the design arise because of the Tactical problems of implementing and maintaining the system. These are:

  • flexibility of development. It would be impractical to introduce a large amount of data before making use of the system. The file should therefore make provision for build-up
    • (a) in number of entities included over time
    • (b) in detail included about entities
    • (c) of new types of detail not envisaged at the time when the file structure was designed (This permits the file to be extended in response to demand and as funds become available without any need to follow a predetermined order of development. Stored information should be of optimum utility of each stage in order that it should immediately justify funds allocated to the project)

  • initial focus on the international system. Since the network of international organizations and related entities supplies a basic structure for the world system, the file should be developed down from international organizations, through their national members and then includeother national entities and local bodies of great significance. In this way the file would be focussed on the most 'coordinative' entities of the world system, at each stage.

  • low priority for commercial bodies. Since commercial organizations are very well documented and have already been incorporated into many sophisticated information systems, it should not be necessary to include them initially. Exceptions to this would be multinational enterprises and their national subsidiaries, togethter with research institutes set up for commercial purposes. The file organization should not however preclude incorporation of profit-making bodies as such, in t!.ose cases where they are considered to be of interest.

  • mailing list preparation. To provide a source of funds, as well as to facilitate file maintenance, it was considered necessary to design the file in such a way that names and addresses of organizations could be conveniently listed in a flexible manner for mailing, survey questionnaires and directory preparation purposes. Unless the system is used a great deal in this way, insufficient mail returns are received to feed back corrections and keep e system up to date, and therefore of continuing value. It is only by being in a position to supply mailing list information that he system can make practical use of research techniques developed to detect unnecessary communication and coordination gaps and their effects on programme implementation. Following on from this, the greater the extent to which the mailing list use of the system can be facilitated, the greater should be the value of it to those organizations included which are faced with communication and coordination problems.

  • receptiveness to data in a wide variety of formats. In order to maximize the value of the system to different research groups and to increase the detail included on entities, the file should be able to incorporate survey data on entities and links from many sources without any need to completely restructure and recode the data.

  • new computer input/output techniques. Since the system would be developed over a period during which remote and/or visual display terminals will become increasingly accessible and low in cost, it is necessary to minimize the difficulties in making use of these devices for retrieval and display of information. Use of visual display devices in particular, should considerably facilitate attempts to represent the operation of the world system, both in general and at a detailed level, from the static (structural) point of view and from the dynamic aspect (inter-entity flows, proposed structural modifications).

12. Finally, the file organization had to be kept reasonably simple to facilitate input, and updating.

The most important factor implicit in many of the points above is the generality of the required file design, because of its generality, the system should be of value to a wide variety of users, but it is only the generality which facilitates response to a wide variety of cross-category queries and permits the construction of models of the world system as a whole.The difficulty inherent in optimizing a general design (aside from that of locating financial support) is illustrated by a quote from Bertram M. Gross (The State of the Nation, p. 138) on the preparation of general social indicators:

'Most proponents of new indicators, however, are mainly interested in some special category of data - say, educators in educational indicators, psychiatrists in mental health data, sociologists in information on strat- ification and mobility, political scientists in voting behavior and political attitudes. Activists in all fields are interested in new information that will help to vindicate their position or indict the opposition... Only a small minority of proponenets -- whether on the producing or the using side -- are interested in enough new indicators to provide comprehensive social systems accounting.'
in enough new indicators to provide comprehensive social systems accounting.'

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