In a previous edition, we discussed the relationship between Information (organized data) and Knowledge (information in context). I bring it up again not to highlight the contents of a fruit salad, but to highlight a much more crucial issue for leaders – timely decision-making. In my work with leaders, we describe the first two steps in the decision-making process as 1) Identify the Issue and 2) Gather and Analyze Information. The decision-maker must properly define the scope of the problem, situation or challenge in enough detail to create tangible alternatives. They must also gather the right amount of the right information to make a knowledgeable decision.
Information overload is not a new challenge. Lucius Annaeus Seneca was a Senator and Adviser under Nero in the early part of his reign. Seneca was a prolific letter writer whose thoughts, insights and convictions were well read throughout the literate Roman Empire. Even in his day, he noted the issue with connectedness by observing “the danger of allowing others – not just friends and colleagues, but the masses – to exert too much influence on one’s thinking”. Without mentioning these words were written around the time of Christ, you could easily assume it was written recently.
To the decision-maker, it is no longer just a task to find the relevant information to use, but to weed out and discard the unnecessary information and do it at the speed of competition. No easy task when the amount of information available to us doubles every 9 – 10 minutes (depending on which study you read). The proliferation of Twitter, blogs, Facebook and texting contributes to this informational tsunami. They also create a greater challenge analyzing the volume of information as messages become shorter and cryptic (Twitter reports over 2 billion tweets a month) at the same time ensuring they are factually correct. We now get billions of messages just to tell us someone, somewhere created a message earmarked for us to read. Last month, AT&T sent 1 billion such messages over its network up from 400 million a month 11 months ago.
As I look at the impact this phenomenon has on our decision-making process as leaders, I see less contingency planning due to the instantaneous nature of technology and less reflection on the meaning of information to create sustainable knowledge. I recently observed a customer in a local Subway sandwich shop dictating multiple orders to the person making the sandwiches. After each order he went back to his phone for the next order. I wondered to myself if that person were in a business environment and had to remember multiple facts, would that be his way of managing information?
Seneca wrote “Elite, literate Romans were discovering the great paradox of information: the more of it that is available, the harder it is to be truly knowledgeable. It was impossible to process it all in a thoughtful way.” As leaders striving to make effective knowledgeable decisions about your business, how many tomatoes are in your fruit salad?