How 3M Creates and Finds Information: Two Important Steps of the Information Cycle

This article presents my methodology and findings about the way the information lifecycle manifests itself at 3M Corporation. To be specific, my goal is to analyse the ‘create’, and ‘find’ phases of this lifecycle. I begin by describing the methodology and resources I used and then I describes my findings. In the following section I discuss the meaning and message in those findings. I end this report by extracting what we could learn from this research and suggesting how 3M could better utilize their information.

Research Methodology

I began my study by considering what the term information meant in the context of 3M, a gigantic corporation with a huge range of innovative products. I arrived at two broad types of information for consideration in this report:

  1. Information presented to the external world; and,
  2. Information internal to 3M

All my resources for this information were online, the most prominent being Google, lib.utexas.edu, the 3M website, Wikipedia, and the NYTimes. While searching about 3M’s information processes, I focused my attention on what the company says about itself especially  its privacy policy, missions and objectives, the hierarchy within the organization, and what communication methods the company uses internally and externally.

I used the ‘scoUT search function on lib.utexas.edu to search for books and journal articles. Some of the queries I used on scoUT were “3M”, “Minnesota Mining Company”, “3M brand personality”, “3M innovation”, and “3M culture”. I also used Google Scholar to find additional resources on 3M and used Wikipedia’s bibliography on the page for the company. As I pored over these resources, I kept my focus on how 3M created information for itself and its customers and what resources it used for finding information.

Findings

3M is a massive organization with two overlapping entities – the business unit, and the innovation unit – both spread out all over the world. The business unit is comprised of the management and marketing teams and investors, whereas the innovation unit encompasses the research and development (R&D) units and the manufacturing workforce.

Before looking at my  findings on the creation and finding of information within 3M, it is important to understand what information means at 3M. I considered the following facets of information for the purpose of this study: what the company officially says about itself (‘About Us’, ‘Company Vision’), what legalities they enforce on the use of their information (‘Legal Information’), how they approach innovation and problem solving, how they communicate information to the world, how their organization is structured (hierarchy), and how they document their knowledge. This last facet of documentation (e.g. product manuals, support information) forms the focus of my analysis as this is the part of 3M that sheds the most light on why 3M is such a successful business.

How 3M Creates Information

In conveying what 3M is, the company creates information about what it stands for using the elements of its businesses, its leadership structure, the career opportunities it offers, and its corporate responsibility (3M Corp. 2015). It adds to this profile information by compiling information about how it conducts business, the awards and recognition it has garnered, and patent information about its products (3M Corp. 2015). In the ‘About Us’ section of the website, 3M prominently creates a historical context for the visitor by offering the story of the company in brief (3M Corp. 2015). 3M has also created a meaning for itself and its sustenance, which is embodied in a statement of its values (3M Corp. 2011).

Other than putting out information about itself, 3M has also had an iconic media presence – both in print (Vogue 1962) and audio-visual media (3M Corp 2012). And, as part of conveying the image that the company has built over the course of a century, 3M renders its branding information in explicit details to both the external and internal public (3M Corp. 2006). Since a lot of 3M’s information is out in the public domain, including precise branding information, the company has created a detailed legal documentation about its assets (3M Corp. 2002) and it tailors that information for each geopolitical region where it  operates or has R&D centers in (3M Corp. 2015). 3M also maintains blogs across its sites for more dynamic information and commentary about the company.

3M’s history provides evidence of a near-continuous streak of innovation. This innovation is the direct outcome of how 3M has created and maintains a culture of knowledge development and sharing (Brand 1998). This is augmented by the extensive internal documentation of 3M’s innovations. For example, they have created a vast body of information about their products in the form of white papers (3M Corp. n.d.), and brochures (3M Corp. n.d.).

In addition to providing this easily accessible information, in 2012 3M completed the implementation of its ebook/elibrary platform called the ‘3M Cloud Library’ (Enis 2012). Through this initiative, 3M  created an information network of cloud storage and e-reader devices that allows people to read books on multiple devices on the go.

As we have seen, 3M is a major innovator unbounded by product category lines and has provided access to  a wealth of information about its values, business ethics, legal framework, branding specifications, and technical documentation. This information is delivered to their customer-base and the general public via their extensive network of websites that cater individually to the many regions where 3M either sells or manufactures its products or conducts R&D. These websites are information-rich portals that have  embedded branding information, including typography, colors, and language that conveys 3M’s personality to the world.

How 3M Finds Information

In the last section I summarized how 3M creates, maintains, and conveys information about its own personality, and its product and innovation offerings via print, audio-visual, and web media. In this section I will evaluate not only how 3M finds the information that it needs  but also how it enables its customers, the general public, and other businesses to find and access information.

I begin by describing the company’s most prominent communication channel – their collection of websites. All of the information about the company that 3M wants to make available to the world via the web exists on its 108 regional websites, all of which are accessible via their global portal www.3m.com. I studied the US and UK sites and found out that the websites convey a uniform image of the company. The layout that allows people to find information about the company and its products is consistent in its look and feel.

Secondly, the company is very bold about conveying its core innovation ideals via its punch line “Science. Applied to Life ™.” The website features a functional search function at the top of a regional home page. This search function provides users with a drop down menu that allows them to find information about the products and services that 3M offers. Other than the search function, the usual website elements, like the main menu and frames, allow the users to navigate through the site easily to find information they are looking for.

In terms of helping its employees find information about the company, the processes, and company-restricted information, they maintain a separate web interface called the “Extranet” the access to which is controlled via employee authentication.

Other than helping customers and employees find information about 3M and its products, the company also offers solutions and services for other businesses that want such information retrieval and archiving infrastructure. A case in point is their “Health Information System” software product that is designed for the healthcare industry, where even small scale health care providers require archiving and finding information about drugs, patients, and diseases on a very regular basis. Another example of this sort of product is their e-library business called the 3M Cloud Library as mentioned in the previous section.

Coming back to 3M’s core businesses, the company makes it easy for consumers to find user manuals, and support information for their products. This includes product pictures, specifications, and usage instructions. This information is accessible to customers via the website, phone, or web chat interfaces. The company provides information about many of its industry oriented products via datasheets, and brochures.

What it Means for 3M

3M gained profitability within about 14 years of its existence since 1902. It has been more than a 100 years since then and 3M is, and has been, at the forefront of innovation. This innovation has not only been in the domain of materials technology but lately also in the form of services as shown in the 3M Cloud Library and Health Information Systems.

The culture of information, specifically knowledge management that 3M has incubated to maturity all through its life is what forms the foundation of the company. The company’s huge product range of innovative products were mostly developed in house from scratch starting with principled scientific research, followed by open sharing of the research, followed by brainstorming on improvement of the designs, and finally followed by prototyping and production.

The engine that pulls the 3M train is evident in the rich manner in which 3M creates information in the form of white papers, company identity, and vision statements. This engine is fuelled by their knowledge management philosophy. The concept of ‘tacit-to-tacit’ (Brand 1998) knowledge transfer is what engenders  an apparently bottomless source of innovation. 3M really stands far from every other corporation at the peak of sustained, innovative success all owing to a knowledge culture that has ‘tolerance for mistakes’ and a ‘flat organization’ (Brand 1998) deeply woven into its fabric. And the fact that 3M has a good interface, and a huge amount of information to share with the world makes them stand out.

Lessons to be learnt from the 3M story

The most valuable lessons, or ‘best practices’ that can be learned from 3M’s story of success can be summarized in the following points. 3M provides?

  • A ‘Tacit-to-Tacit’ knowledge transfer model where the “transferring of an individual’s experience and knowledge to other individuals”(Brand 1998) takes place. This results in trustworthy relationships between individuals and fosters a culture of sharing of knowledge that motivates everyone to innovate and create.
  • An environment of “Generosity, freedom, and safety” in which knowledge can flourish(Brand 1998)
  • “Total Company Involvement” because “Innovation cannot be farmed out to one or two individuals; it must permeate the entire fabric of the organization and every department within a company, not just technical or marketing”(Brand 1998).
  • “Tolerance of Mistakes” is again one of the most important values that any organization or individual must take in order to progress towards success. In Adam Brand’s words, “As befits a company that was founded on a mistake, we have continued to accept mistakes as a normal part of running a business”(Brand 1998).

In my opinion, these are some of the best practices that not just organizations, but even individuals must adopt in order to be successful and resilient as 3M has shown to be time and again in its long story.

Scope for Improvement

Nothing is perfect, for perfection or even a sense of it can lead to stagnation and complacency. Of course, there are some weaknesses in the way 3M creates and manages information that need some redress.

First, the company clearly does not pay equal attention to the layout and usability of its websites for all regions. This is visible if you compare the site for the US with the site for Ireland. The Irish version of the site gives an impression of being out-of-date. This can, obviously, be improved by deciding on a uniform look and feel of the site. 3M should either do it in house, or hire a consultancy firm to fix this fractured global portal structure.

Second, despite having few top-level categories on their US site, the second level of categories devolves into a confusing list of collections that make it difficult for someone trying to find information about a product. Although the search option is always appreciated, a nicely laid out category/product tree declutters the process of finding information.

Third, while their ‘About Us’ section is nicely subdivided into sections on company information, careers, investor relations and the like, it makes for difficult navigation for a web user. For example, if one wishes to know simply about the history of the company, it is not to be found on the ‘About Us’ landing page! It requires further navigation and searching?before the company’s ‘biographical’ history is found. As a suggestion, the ‘About Us’ link should land to a more descriptive page that serves to say, rather prosaically, the human equivalent of “this is me, I do this, and here is my story.” Once this ‘introduction’ is complete, all the other information that is currently on the ‘About Us’ page would make more sense.

All in all, 3M is a great example of a company that provides opportunities for information professionals to study the information cycle. My study of the ‘create’ and ‘find’ stages of the cycle seemed to bring out a very positive picture of 3M as a principled, structured, and innovative company. With only a small amount of improvement, 3M would be even better at communicating information.

 

Bibliography

3M Corp. 2012. 3M Innovation: Bringing Our Vision to Life – YouTube. 29 11. Accessed 10 27, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vwhfTOytP5o.

3M Corp. 2015. 3M Global Gateway. 13 March. Accessed October 27, 2015. http://www.3m.com/.

3M Corp. 2006. 3M Logo Standards – 3M Corporate Identity – 3M Worldwide. 18 December. Accessed October 27, 2015. http://solutions.3m.com/wps/portal/3M/en_WW/Corp/Identity/Identity-Elements/3M-Logo/Standards/.

3M Corp. 2015. 3M US Company Information. 21 10. Accessed 10 27, 2015. http://solutions.3m.com/wps/portal/3M/en_US/3M-Company/Information/.

3M Corp. 2002. 3M Worldwide: Legal Information. 1 2. Accessed 10 27, 2015. http://solutions.3m.com/wps/portal/3M/en_WW/Worldwide/WW/3M/Legal/.

3M Corp. 2015. History – 3M US Company Information. 27 1. Accessed 10 27, 2015. http://solutions.3m.com/wps/portal/3M/en_US/3M-Company/Information/Resources/History/.

3M Corp. n.d. Standards & Whitepapers: 3M UK &Ireland. Accessed October 27, 2015. http://solutions.3m.co.uk/wps/portal/3M/en_GB/Library_Systems/Library_System/Resources/StandardsWhitepapers/.

3M Corp. 2011. Who We Are – 3M US Company Information. 11 3. Accessed 10 27, 2015. http://solutions.3m.com/wps/portal/3M/en_US/3M-Company/Information/AboutUs/WhoWeAre/.

Brand, Adam. 1998. “Knowledge Management and Innovation at 3M.” Journal of Knowledge Management 2 (1): 17-22. Accessed October 26, 2015. http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/EUM0000000004605.

Enis, Matt. 2012. “3M Makes Its Presence Felt; An ebook platform with easy setup, use, and ILS integration.” Library Journal 137 (17): 42.

Vogue. 1962. “Spotless-ness.” Vogue, 1 8: 141.

 

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