Monday, December 21, 2009

Information overload

Frank Childres led the small-group discussion in our Adult Bible Fellowship yesterday.  Frank asked us what standard we were working from in our training of our children.  By way of example he talked about teaching our children how to make decisions.  Making decisions is apparently a topic that Frank has studied extensively in a business context.

Frank said that the volume of information and number of decisions that people are faced with is growing super-fast and has already reached overwhelming proportions in business.  He threw out a lot of examples and technical terminology that I can't remember right now.  I emailed him this morning and asked for pointers to some articles or something to get me started understanding all of this.  In the meantime I wanted to get my initial thoughts out, and this seems as good a place as any.

Information overload is the primary prediction of Future Shock.  (I've referenced it many times.  If you haven't read it then you are behind the curve.  One of these days I'm going to go through it again and write up a cliff note outline for it, but in the meantime you really should go read it.)  So that part of what Frank said really resonated.

I had a significant personal experience with information overload at Journyx, with our Technical Support queue.  We were receiving many more cases per day than we could respond to.  We had to build a triage process.  And we had to build in time to invest in our capabilities to cope with more cases.  And we had to invest in our capabilities to respond to cases faster.

That was the original impetus for me to read Future Shock--looking for suggestions on how to deal with the fire hose I was drinking from.  I don't remember the specifics I found there.  I only remember the strategy that I devised for coping.  Triage, triage, triage.  Set appropriate expectations.  Document every case, and search that documentation on every new case--never solve the same problem twice.  Watch the process and tweak it for every performance improvement you can find.

My small team dealt with a large number of complex bugs and massive number of usage issues, and we received 5 compliments for every complaint--not something that most Technical Support teams can boast.

I have two library books on my desk right now that both deal directly with this issue.  The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and Getting Things Done both deal with strategies for individuals coping with the high demands of modern life.

I especially appreciate two of  Covey's early points:

  • He talks extensively about guiding principles.  I hear lots of people quote Covey, but this point seems to be often overlooked.  Covey says that we must "be" before we "do".  He also says that we must be conscious of our guiding principles, and act according to those principles.  
  • He talks about balancing productivity with productive capability.  You have to continue to invest in your ability to be productive, as opposed to merely spending all of your time being productive.  Failure to invest in your capabilities leads to burn out--physically, mentally, or spiritually.  Equipment fails without proper maintenance.  Etc.

This leads me to several deeper thoughts about the future shock that we are facing.

1. We are due for a renaissance in focus on maintenance costs.  Equipment that has low maintenance costs can be ignored.  In a civilization where the cost of attention is properly monetized and its scarcity is well understood, equipment that can be ignored will be more valuable.  Eventually this will lead to every piece of equipment being categorized as either disposable or permanent.  There will be no middle ground.  But the definition of permanent will be "zero maintenance through it's expected technological life span."

2. We need to do a better job of learning triage.  This is the proper model for dealing with a fire hose of information and priorities.  Covey and Allen provide good individual models.  We need to develop group triage models.  Emergency rooms have already worked out a model system for us.  We just need to study and apply.  There is a whole new market there, for whomever can become the expert first.

3. One of the other things that Frank said to me (in a different context) was that he was looking for people who had a great "comfort with ambiguity."  I didn't really understand what he was saying at first.  Now I think I get it.  Change happens quickly, and we need to remain very flexible.  Don't nail down anything that doesn't have to be nailed down because we will likely need to move it.

4. This bodes poorly for older workers.  Not just the current group of older workers.  But every generation from here on out will find that they have a harder and harder time keeping up with the pace of change.

5. There is an opportunity for newspapers-like organizations.  They need to focus on "the things you need to know about today" for focused target markets.  They have an engineer edition, and an accountant edition, etc.  Distill all of the secondary information down into the smallest form possible.  And help professionals get their news as quickly as possible.

6. Today's ADD is just the leading edge of tomorrow's successful adaptation to a changing environment.  We're too close to it to see it well--if tree frogs were evolving in front of us we could discuss and understand it.  But we don't have enough perspective to appreciate our own evolution.

7. Every field needs to adapt.  Engineering, teaching, cost accounting, software development, sales, etc.  Each field needs to spend some serious time determining what information overload means to them.

8. More fields needs to formally adopt regimes of continuing education.  (Seems I've said that before.)

9. If you consider the newspaper idea and the continuing education idea together, these are both forms of production capacity investment.  That seems to be a specialization of the future.  How long will it be before we see an MBA degree with a specialization in Production Capacity Investment?  (I would love to spend some time writing the curriculum for that.)

10. As Frank said on Sunday, this is a topic that parents need to add to their radar.  We can't let our adults in training out of the house without teaching them how to deal with information overload as they make decisions.

11. The future will reward specialization more and more.  But the value of each individual specialization will decay faster and faster.  Society will have to adapt by encouraging more retraining and learning new specialties.

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