Chapter 2: Typical Problems in the Development of Human Rights Information Management Systems

2.1 Six organizational pitfalls in system design

The process of defining objectives, deciding exactly what information needs to be collected, and then finding the resources to do the work can be a very arduous exercise for organizations. The development of an information management system is sometimes a flashpoint of organizational conflict. People beginning the design work must think about these problems before they happen so that at a minimum they are unsurprised when the conflicts emerge. There are several basic causes of this kind of conflict. First, information systems tend to be new and expensive parts of human rights organizations. Designing the work process takes a lot of time, the computers cost money, and the staff who need to be involved are often in great demand to support other staff in the organization. Thus the computerization part of the information management system can be perceived as taking resources from other parts of the organization.

Second, information can take a long time -- several months -- to make its way through the system, and so there is no immediate, visible product after the system is set up. Human rights organizations often work under immensely difficult time pressures, so the organization's leadership may become frustrated during the period that the information management system is being developed [3]. Their frustration may build further as they wait during the period between input and outflow.

Third, many interactions between groups and individuals are involved because if the system is to have value, the ownership of the system must be widely shared throughout the organization. Because group and individual needs can be in conflict, it is important to be prepared to negotiate compromises.

Fourth, it is very difficult to design an information management system without deciding what information, exactly, needs to be managed. It may be that an organization that has only done human rights case work now wants to calculate simple statistics from their cases. However, this means that they have to decide what they are going to count. Will they count rape separately from torture, or is rape a kind of torture which should be included as a subcategory? [4] Debates such as this are unavoidable and occasionally heated, especially because although there are no "right" answers, the decisions the group reaches will profoundly affect the conclusions they can make. It may seem that creating the information management system has created problems for the organization, and in a sense, it has. Designing a very precise information management system will inevitably uncover previously unnoticed differences in key ideas.

The fifth problem is related to the previous ones, but exists at a more general level. What are the overall organizational objectives for creating a standardized information flow? Oftentimes organizations begin what they conceptualize as a "computerization process," thinking that by buying computers for step 3 they will automatically gain the benefits of steps 1, 2, and 4 (see Figure 1.1.1). Thus great hopes are vested on the computers without a correspondingly explicit sense of how those hopes will be accomplished. People may buy computers thinking that the computers alone will bring greater or-ganization to the work process. Sometimes different members of an organization have different ideas about what computerization will imply in terms of who is responsible for what kinds of work. Once the process starts, these differences of opinion become obvious and occasionally problematic.

Human rights monitoring work is about information: getting the facts straight is the basic requirement for many organizations' work. Thus information management is at the very heart of what we do. Building a rigorous information management system can involve substantial changes in how a human rights organization works. This fact brings us to the sixth source of conflict: change is never easy, and many people may be uncomfortable with the new system. System designers should be aware of the possiblity of problems like these, and they should imagine strategies that can help as many key people as possible to participate in planning and implementing the system. It is especially important to keep the organization's leadership fully appraised of all the small successes and failures.

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