The Information Myth

Sometimes, when a term has been coined, it’s hard to get rid of it albeit it’s plain wrong. As it is the case with “Too much information!”. I don’t know where it came from (and don’t intend to research it now, feel free to post it in the comments), yet it is unimportant for the matter of the fact. So how did I come to this conclusion?

Last week, German newspaper Die Zeit published an article citing a study among managers and their biggest issues on the job, resulting in ten rules a good manager, according to the paper, should follow. Let’s just say the author would have better read some books on the topic, yet he seemed to prefer the blather. But that’s not why I’m writing this.

The study revealed that one of the most pressing problems of managers is the amount of decisions, which requires a lot of information for each of them. Obvious. To decide, you need information. Now, what is information?

I like Fredmund Malik’s definition that information is knowledge that leads to action. Now, if you think about it for a few seconds, how much of the things that enter you brain in the course of a day do lead to action? Indeed, very little. What’s the overwhelming majority then? It’s data. When you look up the definition of data and information at Wikipedia it’s all there, though I don’t agree that a book with all data about Mt. Everest automatically becomes information. Data only becomes information when it is put in a context that leads to an action on your behalf.

Looking at all the bits and pieces we’re dealing with daily that way, it’s plain to see why making decisions is such a massive time-consuming process. It’s not information we’re dealing with on the input side, it’s data that we must put in perspective, be it an analytics report, a movie clip, the latest news. It’s not that we (as humans) were producing ever more information, we’re just producing ever more data which in turn we must filter out to obtain information.

Now, is what I’ve been writing about in these few lines data or information to you? Since we will keep producing ever more data, the ability to distill data to information will become key to future success for anyone, because all success depends on the ability to make decisions. This necessity requires not only organizations of every kind to teach their employees how to get better at this, it also requires schools to switch from teaching young people to learn everything from a limited resource (i.e., a school book) to learning the process of filtering out the irrelevant data from an unlimited resource (i.e., the Internet). For the careful reader, the previous sentence has turned data into information. Thank you for reading.

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