Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
T.S. Eliot, Choruses from “The Rock”. 1934.
This line from T.S. Eliot’s The Rock, seems to perfectly frame the question facing many organizations. We live in an era of unprecedented information access (quantity and choices of source) and yet access alone does not result in the creation of knowledge. To the contrary, in some ways, it might be impeding the recognition of knowledge and it’s transfer. It’s the proverbial signal versus noise problem. More is more, but more is not better.
This is a human challenge. People are critical to the process of converting information into intelligence and knowledge. This may sound esoteric but consider the practical implications. Co-workers struggle to keep up with the information generated by their teams let alone relevant information from outside their teams that is widely recognized as the most critical for innovation. Communicators struggle to get their messages through the noise to the people who care.
Having worked on these problems for a few years, my impression is that it is changing. That the foundation is being laid for tools for discernment and engagement. I believe the most effective tools are built to augment human expertise rather than replace it. For a pragmatic example consider solutions that allow subject matter experts to efficiently identify and communicate highly relevant information to narrow audiences with particular information needs. This creates multiple layers of value by enhancing the capability of both the subject matter expert as well as those in the audience. It allows them to say — here is the knowledge in that information.
It started with a simple question posed by a senior executive during a staff meeting. Blindsided a couple of times in the course of a month by information related to market events that should have been known to the team, the exec in frustration asked:
“If the President of the United States can get a daily briefing on the state of the world, why can’t we get one on our own company?”
True story. That simple question led to a phone call to us and ultimately to a simple solution.
Like all of us their problem was not access to information – rather it was discerning the information that matters. In this case about competitors and industry developments including a new market entrant. Millions of information workers face this same problem regardless of their industry, role or profession.
But wait. Remember the promise of “information at your fingertips”? Remember the promise of “jet packs”?
People have been forced to become information hunters and gatherers when they should be harvesting intelligence. The root cause of this problem is that our collective ability to create information has far outpaced tools that help us keep track of what matters. This problem is not getting better and it is not going away. Despite the many hours of conversations we have had with companies about these issues, few have encapsulated the problem as clearly as comparing it to the president’s daily briefing.
Many organizations have assumed that people can fend for themselves using search, browsing internal portals and collating information from various sources. Perhaps the rationale is that people fend for themselves this way outside of work. But the “info-entertainment” the Internet offers is very different than business and professional settings where what you don’t know can hurt you.
In reality, countless hours are spent looking for information only to be caught-off-guard anyway. In this case, what if the marketing department had that daily intelligence briefing? A bunch of good things happen. Important information that might otherwise be overlooked is presented in the right context to the people who need it, people spend less time looking for information which collectively adds up to huge value, and investments in content and systems are better utilized. For people who review and share information as part of their job, these benefits are multiplied across everyone that benefits. To give a sense of the magnitude, these factors have led one customer to assign a 4 to 1 ROI to their topic intelligence investments.
Every organization should leverage the wealth of information available today. The tools exist to do this. But doing so requires looking at the problem differently and not relying on people to fend for themselves. That is why this example seems so valuable. Ask simple questions. It may lead to simple but effective solutions.
The Technology community has discussed and debated the impact of information abundance for many years. By itself, info abundance is simply a positive spin on information overload. It is the consequence of abundance on our business and professional lives (increasingly intertwined) that are interesting.
Let’s get to the heart of why we care at all – creating value i.e. innovation, service to customers, leadership, risk management etc. The importance of information and shared insight in enabling these value-creating activities is well accepted. However, there has always been a caveat: the volume of available information is overwhelming, so we can only do our best. During the first decade or two of our digital transition, that caveat was valid.
This was underscored for me recently during a conversation with a CEO who observed how important it was to build a culture of continuous learning. To paraphrase, if people within the organization are not learning, their value to customers is diminished which in-turn means their value to the organization is diminished. Leaders can’t let that happen.
There can be little doubt that we are entering an era that requires aggressive information management, especially for companies looking to establish or maintain a long-term competitive edge, since that edge is now moving faster than ever and with increasing nuance. Certainly, executives are starting to see higher levels of accountability for data management behaviors, with the expectation that they transform valuable information into business behavior that drives innovation, and ultimately, the bottom line.
This concept of doing something with information has a cold, hard reality – we have 24 hours in a day and we have a finite amount of attention we can devote to anything. This is why the next phase of innovation in information management must focus on how information is used rather than how it is produced and stored. While those two macro considerations are related, a focus on the latter is going to produce incredible changes in our ability to do something with information. This is why the future belongs to those who can take information overload and create action.