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The Real Problem with Information Isn’t Overload or Underload

The Real Problem with Information Isn’t Overload or Underload

Paul Kedrosky raised an interesting question at the Defrag Conference in Denver yesterday.  He led a panel discussion that kept circling back to the notion of information overload, but Paul suggested that the 200+ people in the room likely represent edge cases who frequently overwhelmed by the amount of information that they have to process, whereas most people may well suffer from information underload.

Much of the discussion centered on what tools to use to better cope with information overload.  Chris Shipley, executive producer of the popular DEMO conference, said she copes by simply ignoring the flood of email and other information when she doesn’t have time to deal with it.

This all got me thinking a bit about this topic in a way that I probably hadn’t before.  Here’s where my thought process arrived:

You Never Miss Information You Need to Know

That’s absurd you say. I say it isn’t.  If you actually have a real “need to know,” then you will get the information. Think about it: the only time you are upset about “missing” some piece of data is after you learn that the information existed. Somehow that information will eventually make its way to you.

The Real Challenge is Getting Information at the Right Time

This is the aha! moment for me.  Figuring out how to get the right information at the right time is really the challenge we are facing here.  Knowing that Tom Brady won’t be able to play next weekend is something that will help your fantasy team if you find out now.  If you learn it next Monday, it’s too late to act effectively on that knowledge.  Similarly, if somehow you had gained that knowledge a year ago, it would be extraneous data for many months before it could actually be acted upon.

Ideally, you want to focus and limit your information intake to deliver each tidbit or bombshell at just the right time so you are not forced to harbor surplus facts for long periods of time or end up finding out what you need to know only when it is too late.

Focusing the Funnel is Hard

Salespeople talk all the time about “feeding the funnel” – meaning getting sales leads in place to help close more sales.  As the sales process moves forward, more and more leads fall off the board, hence the funnel shape of the activity.

It’s the same thing that happens with information.  You start out with the understanding that there are millions of words written or spoken every day.  That information can be classified in several different ways:

Info_triad_2

Of course the vast majority of information generated each day falls into that final category of data that will never be of use to you.  Ideally, you want to get the first category ASAP and find a way to make sure that the “future useful” information gets filed properly to be brought back for you to see when it is actually ripe for acting upon.

So What Can You Do About It?

So what’s the problem here?  Is it a tools problem that we need to address through greater innovation?  Is it a behavioral problem that we need to address through our own decision-making?  Or should we all just use the Chris Shipley “duck and cover” approach?

Like most problems, the answer isn’t black and white and really involves a bit of each to be solved.  Here’s my quick take on it:

  • It’s Not a Tools Problem.  There are tremendous tools already available to help you process and distill information.  Everything from email programs to fancy web applications can help you move through large volumes of information more rapidly than we were ever able to in the past.
  • We Think We Need to Know More than We Do, So Spend Time Thinking About What You Actually Need. Paul Kedrosky talked about how we all don’t know a bunch of important pieces of data.  He polled the audience at Defrag to find out who knew the current U.S.-Canada exchange rate, how many people are being evacuated due to potential dam failure in China, and what the price of oil was yesterday and what caused it to spike.  But most of us don’t really need to know those things.
  • Find Good Information Curators. Chris Brogan has talked a lot about this concept and he’s absolutely right.  There are plenty of really smart people aggregating interesting information, especially from the online world.  Some of these are pay services, but many are free.  If you’re an executive, you may well have staff that does a lot of reading. Don’t reinvent the wheel here.  Let your staff, friends, or smart strangers curate your information for you.
  • Go On an Information Diet. Try the Chris Shipley approach for a few days or even a week.  Ignore most of what’s in your email inbox.  Toss out every piece of mail except bills or anything else that is obviously critical.  Stop reading blogs and web sites.   Chances are that when you do, you will find you are missing far less than you thought.  After you have gone through this “information detox” figure out what you were really missing and slowly add it back to your diet. 
  • Schedule Routine Information Check-Ups. At least twice a year, you should review your information needs.  Combine an information diet with an assessment of what information you feel you might be lacking.  Going through this exercise every six months will help you avoid continuing to gather information simply because you always have. 
  • Track What Works for You. To make these semi-annual checkups more effective, it would be good to have hard data.  Keep a notebook or a computer file where you note big achievements that you reached because of information you had or challenges you had to endure because you didn’t.  Flag emails or blog posts using whatever software to use to note any indispensable pieces of information you got that you wouldn’t have seen otherwise.  At your six month checkup, figure out the sources of information that contribute most frequently and make sure that you stay on top of those in a timely fashion.  Conversely, if you find you are reading or doing something that never leads anywhere, STOP!

So, does this provoke any ideas on your part?  I hope so.  If so, please share them with me.  This is an interesting problem to define and solve.

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  • I couldn’t love this post more. Wish I’d written it. You know web 3.0 will help with this, but for now?
    unplug. : )

  • Chip, this is a good list. I blogged my list of personal attention management tips (http://knowledgeforward.wordpress.com/2006/11/29/personal-attention-management-tips/) that included additional ideas such as setting up proactive scans (saved searches), using an RSS reader, building your social network, vowing to make better use of presence capabilities, and setting a personal service-level for response times.
    The way I approached this was to line the elements of the problem up against a conceptual model that includes input, processing, throttle, output as a structuring mechanism. That way someone can evaluate their effectiveness across the information processing spectrum.
    I would also note that we’re talking here about “personal attention management”. For those who are viewing this from a higher, enterprise level and have control over the communication/collaboration tool strategy and policy for an entire division or company, there is a different list of things an enterprise can do to help improve the effectiveness of its information workers. I call this “enterprise attention management”. The full picture is available here: http://knowledgeforward.wordpress.com/2006/12/22/my-attention-management-system-conceptual-architecture/

  • This is a great piece on regulating your info intake rather than just speeding it up with tools. I took a more focused approach on making your daily reading relevant to your day job as this is a struggle at times.
    http://newlycorporate.com/2007/11/08/google-reader-external-focus-boost-or-productivity-problem/

  • Google Reader: External Focus Boost or Productivity Problem?

    Google Reader makes my news reading 100% faster and more enjoyable, I use it for everything. From the latest tech news to Generation Y career advice to political opinion, it all comes flowing through my reader saving me the time of hopping all over t…

  • Chip,
    Thanks for flagging an issue that besets nearly everyone who operates in the Networked World. So many emails, so little time…
    As someone who teaches and writes about improvisation in business, I have developed ways for my clients and readers to bring the most necessary and useful information to every business scenario they’re in, and eliminate extraneous material that will slow the scene down, maybe even prevent it from achieving its objective.
    A couple of things I tell people stressing about info over- or underload:
    Focus on helping your scenes achieve the objective, not on what you know or don’t know. Trust your instincts to guide you, not your head. Our heads are fine, it’s our instincts that need honing and guidance. In the Networked World, the constant acquisition of knowledge and information is a given. So why fret about it? As my friend, Larry Elin who worked on TRON and teaches at Syracuse said to me recently, “Everybody knows enough. It’s what we do with our knowledge that makes the difference.”
    Second, in the Networked World, wealth is not generated by what we ACQUIRE in the form of information, but by how effectively we SHARE what we have (as in your blog entry, perfect example). In 1999, Tom Mendoza, the CEO of Network Appliance, shared a phone number with a friend of his on the board of Red Hat. It was the phone number of his investment banker. That phone number, and the banker’s identity, are no secret. The information can be easily acquired. It was Mendoza’s ability to share it with the right people at the right time that led to Red Hat’s IPO and founder’s stock for Mendoza worth $30 million.
    I tell my clients to use the allegory of crewing on a boat versus being its captain. It is the crew’s responsibility to process information. It is the captain’s to know how to put that information to best use. In the first scenario, we go where the boat takes us. In the second, the boat goes where we want it to go.
    m.

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  • Chip, this is a good list. I blogged my list of personal attention management tips (http://knowledgeforward.wordpress.com/2006/11/2…) that included additional ideas such as setting up proactive scans (saved searches), using an RSS reader, building your social network, vowing to make better use of presence capabilities, and setting a personal service-level for response times.
    The way I approached this was to line the elements of the problem up against a conceptual model that includes input, processing, throttle, output as a structuring mechanism. That way someone can evaluate their effectiveness across the information processing spectrum.
    I would also note that we're talking here about “personal attention management”. For those who are viewing this from a higher, enterprise level and have control over the communication/collaboration tool strategy and policy for an entire division or company, there is a different list of things an enterprise can do to help improve the effectiveness of its information workers. I call this “enterprise attention management”. The full picture is available here: http://knowledgeforward.wordpress.com/2006/12/2