Business information comes in general surveys, data, articles, books, references, search-engines, and internal records that a business can use to guide its planning, operations, and the evaluation of its activities. Such information also comes from friends, customers, associates, and vendors. Published sources may be daily newspapers; financial, trade, and association magazines; databases, government statistics, directories, technical manuals, and much else. In effect, since "information" is defined more by context than by content, business information is whatever information helps a business know its environment.
Writing in his book Business Information: How to Find It, How to Use It, Michael R. Lavin commented that business information is of tremendous value in problem solving and strategic planning: "Information can be used to evaluate the marketplace by surveying changing tastes and needs, monitoring buyers' intentions and attitudes, and assessing the characteristics of the market. Information is critical in keeping tabs on the competition by watching new product developments, shifts in market share, individual company performance, and overall industry trends. Intelligence helps managers anticipate legal and political changes, and monitor economic conditions in the United States and abroad. In short, intelligence can provide answers to two key business questions: How am I doing? and Where am I headed?"
Business analysts cite two primary sources of business information: external information, in which documentation is made available to the public from a third party; and internal information, which consists of data created for the sole use of the company that produces it, such as personnel files, trade secrets, and minutes of board meetings.
External information comes in a variety of forms—from printed material to broadcast reports to online dissemination.
The category of print covers not only a vast array of books and periodicals, but also includes microfilm and microfiche, newsletters, and other subcategories. State and federal government reports also fit into this category; indeed, Lavin described the U.S. Government Printing Office as "the largest publisher in the free world; its products can be purchased by mail, telephone or through GPO bookstores in major cities."
Perhaps the most accessible documents in the print category are books and periodicals. Certainly business owners have a wide array of book titles to choose from, many of which find their way onto the shelves of public, business, and university libraries every year. In addition to books that provide general reference information on human resources management, start-up financing, product development, establishing a home-based business, and a plethora of other topics of interest to small business owners, the publishing industry has seen a surge of books that tackle more philosophical issues, such as balancing work and family life, establishing healthy personal interactions with co-workers and employees, the nature of entrepreneurial activity, and many others.
Many other small business owners, meanwhile, get a considerable amount of their business information from print sources. As with books, entrepreneurs and established business owners (as well as corporate executives, human resource managers, and nearly every other category of person involved in business) can turn to a variety of periodical sources, each with its own target niche. Some magazines and newspapers, such as Business Week and Wall Street Journal, provide general interest coverage, while others (Forbes, Fortune, Inc.) provide more of an emphasis on subjects of interest to investors and executives in large firms. Still others—most notably Entrepreneur, Small Business Start-Ups, and Nation's Business (published by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce)—publish information specifically targeted at small business owners. These magazines can provide entrepreneurs with helpful information on every aspect of operations, from creating a good business plan to determining which computer system is most appropriate for your enterprise.
Then there are the trade journals, an enormous subsection of print aimed at very select audiences. These trade journals, which typically provide narrow coverage of specific industries (journals targeted at owners of bakeries, amusement parks, real estate businesses, grocery stores, and a variety of other businesses can all be found), often contain valuable industry-specific information. Another subcategory of the specialized print category is the material published through business research services and associations such as Commerce Clearing House, the Bureau of National Affairs, and Dun & Bradstreet.
Finally, both government agencies and educational institutions publish a wide variety of pamphlets, brochures, and newsletters on a range of issues of interest to small business owners and would-be entrepreneurs. While government brochures and reports have long been a favored source of business information—in some measure because many of these documents are available free of charge—consultants indicate that valuable studies and reports compiled by educational institutions are often underutilized by large and small companies alike.
This source of business information is perhaps the least helpful of the various external sources available to small business owners. Programs devoted to general investment strategies and the changing fortunes of large companies can be found, of course, but the broad-based nature of broadcasting makes it difficult, if not impossible, to launch programs aimed at narrow niche audiences (like dental instrument manufacturers or accounting firms, for example).
As we advance into the first decade of the 21st century, the ever-greater speed and scope of the Internet is beginning to turn the Web into the most powerful source of information for the small business. With appropriate subscription services like InfoTrac, even access to print sources is easier to achieve than actually searching newspapers or trade magazines. Search skills, of course, must be developed, but the small business owner can practice this art in the evenings when libraries and bookstores are closed.
Many of these databases offer information pertinent to the activities of business owners. As Ying Xu and Ken Ryan observed in Business Forum, the Internet includes data on demographics and markets, economics and business, finance and banking, international trade, foreign statistics, economic trends, investment information, and government regulations and laws. This information is provided by Internet news groups, online versions of newspapers and magazines, and trade associations. In addition, "many colleges, universities, libraries, research groups, and public bodies make information freely available to anyone with an Internet connection," stated Robert Fabian in CMA—The Management Accounting Magazine. "Often, the motivation is to make information available to people within the institution. But it can be less costly to provide general access than to screen access." He also noted that "increasingly, governments are publishing information on the Internet and insisting that organizations they fund also publish on the Internet. It's a practical way to move towards open government, and does make information, which is paid for by the taxpayers, far more accessible to those taxpayers (and any others with Internet access). The range of available information is impressive."
CD-ROM (compact disc read-only memory) is an alternative to online services. As the name implies, CD-ROM is not so much an interactive system; in usage it is close to traditional print. In fact, CD-ROM versions of such print staples as the Oxford English Dictionary are now commonly available. Business applications for CD-ROM include corporate directories such as Dun & Bradstreet's Million Dollar Disk and demographic statistics such as Slater Hall Information Products' Population Statistics. The primary drawback associated with business CD-ROM products is the absence of current information, although many publishers of CD-ROM products offer updates on an annual—or even more frequent—basis.
The CD-ROM as an information delivery system is now facing increasing competition from subscription-based online services. The growing speed of the Internet when accessed by cable or DSL lines is making large down-loads from the Web less of a frustration; at the same time very rapid updates to the databases consulted are available to the user.
External sources of business information can be invaluable in helping a small business owner or entrepreneur determine appropriate courses of action and plan for the future. But researchers note that members of the business community often rely on personal contact for a great deal of their information.
"Common experience and the result of numerous research studies show quite clearly that managers, and indeed all seekers of information, frequently prefer personal and informal contacts and sources to published documents and formal sources generally," wrote David Kaye in Management Decision. "The reasons are well understood. A knowledgeable friend or colleague will often provide, not only the facts requested, but also advice, encouragement, and moral support. He or she may be able to evaluate the information supplied, indicate the best choice where there are options, relate the information to the enquirer's needs and situation, and support the enquirer's action or decision. Many such personal contacts will of course be found within the manager's own organization, which is for many people the prime source of facts, knowledge, and expertise'¦. Any organization is a complex information processing system in which actions and decisions are underpinned by an array of oral and written instructions, reports, regulations, information, and advice. Accordingly, many managers seldom look beyond the organization's boundaries in their search for information."
Business analysts note, however, that companies that do rely exclusively on internal information sources run the risk of 1) remaining uninformed about important trends in the larger industry—including new products/services and competitor moves—until it is too late to respond effectively; and 2) receiving skewed information from employees whose goals and opinions may not exactly coincide with the best interests of the business.
Daniells, Lorna M. Business Information Sources. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.
Fabian, Robert. "Business Information and the Internet," CMA—The Management Accounting Magazine. November 1994.
Haynes, David. Metadata for Information Management and Retrieval. Facet Publishing. 2004.
Kaye, David. "Sources of Information, Formal and Informal." Management Decision. September 1995.
Lavin, Michael. Business Information: How to Find It, How to Use It. 2nd ed. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press, 1992.
McCollum, Tim. "All the News That's Fit to Net." Nation's Business. June 1998.
Ying Xu and Ken Ryan. "Business Travelers on the Infobahn: Fee Vs. Free Access to Internet Business Resources." Business Forum. Summer-Fall 1995.