Sunday, February 24, 2013

How to select information

Information is available at an unprecedented scale. It is produced at an unprecedented scale. That is, data are available and produced at an unprecedented scale. Information means data that are relevant. Relevant to whom? Relevant for what?

Relevant information is meaningful and useful information. Essentially, three types of information are relevant: information on subjects that we are keenly interested in; information that helps us with meeting our responsibilities and information that helps us to feel good.

The question what we are interested in is easily answered. The only problems may be that we can’t yet define what we are interested in and that we may be interested in too many things. The first problem can be solved by finding information sources that are broadly covering the general area of our interest, like newspapers, journals or websites. Scanning them we may gradually find out what interests us more specifically. The second problem can be tackled by gradually focussing on what we are really passionate about, or concentrating on the most rewarding sources in our field of interest. This is true for an interest in, say, mediaeval architecture in the Balkans, or the whereabouts of a lost love.

Anyway, we have to select. Wisdom is learning what to overlook according to William James.

Responsibilities is usually a more difficult question. Private responsibilities are easy to list, but difficult to define and to limit. What are our exact responsibilities to our children who just left the house? What are our exact responsibilities to elderly parents? To other people close by who we meet regularly and could be in serious problems? Is the withdrawn and clearly unhappy neighbor girl who has bruises on her face our responsibility? Not directly, no. But if something really bad happens to her, we may feel guilty. We can easily overextend the responsibilities we feel. And we can easily ignore them.

And then there are our responsibilities in the work place. On paper, these responsibilities are included in our job description. But we may miss the tools to really assume those responsibilities. Or the responsibilities are ill-defined. Or they have grown in practice into an area that is not part of our formal job-description. Or even in our work our true responsibility remains vague. Or bosses and colleagues come with conflicting demands.

The only thing we can do, is try to list our responsibilities as good as we see them. And then find out what the practical limits are. What information do we need to fulfill these responsibilities and how can we get them? Usually, when we still cannot define our information needs, this means we are not clear about our responsibilities.
The wider your responsibilities are, the more they include the future, the wider your scan must be. The main problem there is judgement: which data signal possible relevance for you field of responsibility.

The history of warfare and of security in general if full of stories of pertinent information missed. A general who dismissed some report on enemy movement, the police, lying aside a tip that could have solved the case or could have prevented a terrible crime. What those stories of apparent ineptitude usually omit to tell, is that scores of reports and incidents and tips swamp the desk of the people responsible. Wisdom is learning what to overlook. Wisdom, experience, sound judgment: all are important, but they never ensure freedom from errors. In many detective and espionage stories, we meet protagonists who have hunches and follow them through. But even intuition is not error-free, although it enhances the heroic dimensions of the leading figure.

Information that helps us to feel good are usually about things that could us make feel bad if we are not careful: health issues, relationship issues, rivalries, even enemies. Keep your friends close - and your enemies closer, is not to make us feel better, but to timely information of possible moves against us.

In business, government and warfare we may distinguish between operational information, tactical information and strategic information. Operational information is what we need to ensure untrammeled progress of ordinary activities. Tactical information is what is needed for specific assignments under unclear and uncertain circumstances: special projects, negotiation, competitive actions. Strategic information is about factors somewhat farther away in time and space that may influence our general mission tomorrow and the day after tomorrow.

Maybe there are organizations that have all three information flows right, but I have never encountered them. Even internal communications in rather small organizations are full of holes and delays. People may be swamped by reports and statistics, while needed information comes in late, piecemeal or not at all.

Few of us are in a position that we can change this. But the least you can do is asking yourself what you really want, what you are really responsible for or really want to be responsible for. Ignore everything that doesn’t contribute to that. Once again William James: Wisdom is learning what to overlook.

No comments:

Post a Comment