Information Research, Vol. 1 No. 2, December 1995

Information and business performance: a study of information systems and services in high-performing companies

Ian Owens, T.D. Wilson and Angela Abell
Department of Information Studies
University of Sheffield, Sheffield, UK


This report focuses on the relationship between information and business performance. Previous work has been done by Angela Abell in the U.K. and Dr. Mariam Ginman in Finland that investigated the relationship between the ‘information culture’ of a company and its business performance.

Abell and Ginman are members of the ‘Åbo Consortium’ - a loose affiliation of researchers in the U.K. and the Nordic countries, which also includes Professor Johan Olaisen of the Norwegian Business School and Professor Tom Wilson of the University of Sheffield. The Consortium has met from time to time to discuss the development of a collaborative approach to business information research and this project was intended to serve as a model for parallel investigations to be carried out in other countries. The report also builds upon previous work in the business information sector, including a number of studies carried out at the University of Sheffield - particularly the investigation of information needs in business by White and Wilson [1], which used a case-study approach as does the study reported here.

Abell has drawn a number of conclusion from her review of the literature [2] on information and business performance:

Abell’s pilot study of a number of firms used an interview schedule devised by Ginman for companies in Finland (demonstrating the feasibility of cross-national collaboration). Abell concluded, from the pilot, that information as a concept has become a central issue for most firms, but that the interpretation of the concept varies considerably from person to person. Although internal and external information are not necessarily seen as different, the nature of the former and the means for its management and control are more readily understood. There is an increasing interest in information management, but this is generally thought of in relation only to internal information, and the acquisition and effective management of external information is still given little thought in most places.


The overall methodological approach was that of the case-study: twelve companies were selected, all of which could be termed ‘high performing’ according to the criteria set out under ‘company performance’ in the diagram below.

Figure 1: Initial theoretical model

The Research Model

The different criteria were applied to the companies according to an agreed sequence and only those companies that satisfied an agreed minimum number of criteria entered the final list.

In each company two methods of data collection were employed:

On the basis of this analysis an attempt was made to relate the various factors to differences in the performance of the companies. Particular attention was paid in the study to:

The Selection Procedure

The selection criteria sought to identify British companies that can be described as high performing, using a combination of financial and non-financial measures. The measures used are set out in the research model above. There are a number of factors in this model that contribute to business performance and that have been used as the selection criteria. These factors are: profitability; productivity; quality; peer evaluation; and export success.

The companies had to fulfil a number of the following conditions to meet these criteria:

During the selection process, an effort was made to include companies from sectors that have been affected by the recent recession, such as the manufacturing and building industries. Effort was also made to select several companies from the newly privatised utilities, water and electricity, and from sectors that had been affected by government legislation, such as the recently deregulated television and financial sectors. Additional financial measures used include turnover, profitability, and market share.

The Sample

Following the selection procedure twenty-five companies from a range of industrial sectors (manufacturing, media, leisure, retail, financial, water and electricity) were contacted to be included in this study. As a result of the contact procedure, the following twelve companies agreed to take part in the project: a water provider; a building society; a television company; a dairy and food producer/wholesaler; a high street bank; a glass manufacturer; a fashion retailer; a life insurance company; a computer hardware/software company; a leisure/ brewing company; an auto-repair company; and a cosmetic manufacturer/retailer


The interviews and the subsequent analysis of the questionnaire returns produced a great deal of qualitative data. The data collected were analysed within the framework of the research model. This analysis concentrated on the variables which lead into effective information systems, namely: technology; the company knowledge base; information sensitivity; and the company information ethos.

An attempt was then made to determine to what extent the organisations surveyed had developed effective information systems.


All companies had invested heavily in information technology (IT) as a delivery mechanism for information provision. The key points identified in this analysis are given below:

Company Knowledge Base

An attempt was made to identify what constitutes the knowledge base of the companies surveyed. The extent to which this knowledge base is at risk through dependency on individuals rather than on systems was also assessed.

The main conclusions were as follows:

Information Sensitivity

In order to assess the information sensitivity of key staff a number of questions were asked. Before describing the results of these question, it is important to define what we mean by the term ‘information sensitivity’. It is here defined by the extent to which senior staff are able to discriminate between internal and external information, and their view of the relationship between internal and external information resources. Linked to this is the sophistication of their understanding of the concept of information management.

The main conclusions were as follows:

Information Ethos

This section examined how far the companies surveyed can be described as having an information ethos, through which the value of information of information is conveyed to all workers. This is an area of research highlighted in recent literature as important is assuring business success [2] [4].

The main conclusions were as follows:


This research has highlighted some important issues that companies now face in the modern business environment. The recent mass introduction of IT has confused the issue of information management and information provision. In the majority of the companies surveyed, the traditional information specialist is playing a diminishing role in information provision. The role is being taken over by IT personnel who put the emphasis on effective storage and retrieval of information, rather than the quality of the information itself.

However, many of the senior staff in the more successful companies surveyed are now taking information management issues on board. The view that information is a valuable asset is almost universally accepted by the companies surveyed. Top management commitment to information as an asset has emerged as a major factor in the implementation of successful information systems.

The research has also highlighted the emphasis many companies put on internally-generated information. One reason for this may be that the companies surveyed are high performers in their sector. Therefore, they expect other companies to follow their example rather than investing time and effort investigating their competitors’ actions.

The research proved the legitimacy of the research model and validated the interconnected variables studied in the model. However, other important variables were identified in the course of the research . The original research model has been expanded to include these variables, which include environmental factors and internal organisational factors which can influence business success and the implementation of successful information systems. The expanded research model is shown below.

Figure 2: Revised theoretical model

The expanded research model includes the following additional variables which have been identified in this study:

The first four factors are external to the company and can have a profound impact on its internal structure and on its business success. The companies surveyed have identified these as factors which have prevented them from fully implementing successful information systems. The fifth factor describes the information ethos of the Chief Executive Officer (CEO), which has been identified as an important factor by all the companies surveyed in assuring the implementation of effective information systems. It was recognised by all the companies surveyed that the CEO is the one member of their organisation with the power to initiate a process of change that is required in order to foster an information culture or information ethos in the organisation.

It is clear that this is an area which requires more research. This project focused on high- performing companies operating in different industries. A follow-up project could use the expanded research model to investigate information systems in less successful companies: however, ensuring the co-operation of these companies may prove very difficult. It would also be useful to focus on companies operating in a single industry using the same research tools. In this way it would be possible to collect data on the variables identified in the expanded research model. This data could then be used to test the validity of the expanded research model by comparing companies which face the same external influences.

The conclusions presented in this report were discussed by information professionals at a seminar held at the British Library in March 1995. A report of the seminar can be obtained from the British Library Research and Development Department.


  1. White D.A. & Wilson, T.D. Business information needs and the online supplier: lessons from recent research. Proceedings of the National Online Meeting. New York, 5-7 May, 1987, pp. 477-481.
  2. Abell, A. & Winterman, V. Information Culture and Business Performance. London: British Library Research and Development Department, 1992.
  3. Saunders J., Brown M. & Laverick S. Research notes on the best British companies: a peer evaluation of Britain’s leading firms. British Journal of Management, 3, 1992, 181-195.
  4. Ginman, M. Information culture and business performance. IATUL Quarterly, 2(2), 1988, 93-106.

How to cite this paper:

Owens, Ian, Wilson, T.D. and Abell, Angela (1995)  "Information and business performance: a study of information systems and services in high-performing companies" Information Research, 1(1) Available at:


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