26 Nov 2016
Information overload is as much an overwhelming feeling as it is a measurable reality. We often feel an impossible obligation to be across everything, which leaves us wanting to give up and absorb nothing that hits our various screens. Despite all this, the good news is that the majority of the information we need seems to appear just in time.
Where does that leave those of us who are control freaks? I am not comfortable to know that the right information will find me the majority of the time. I want to know that the information I need is guaranteed to find me every time!
The trouble is, guarantees are expensive. This is related to the debate between search based big data solutions and enterprise data warehouses. Google provides a “near enough” search solution that, given the massive amount of data it trawls through, usually seems to find what we need. Knowledge and business intelligence solutions provide the predictable information flows but come at a huge cost.
Of course, the real sense of serendipity comes when information arrives unsought just when we need it. It can come through the right article being highlighted in a social media feed, a corporate policy being forwarded or the right coffee conversation with a colleague. Of course, serendipity isn’t random coincidence and there is much we can do to improve the odds of it happening when we need it most.
Before doing so, it is important to know what things have to be predictable and reliable. A list is likely to include financial reports, approvals and other controls. What’s more, a scan of any email inbox is likely to show a significant number of messages that need to be read and often actioned. Despite its tyranny on our working lives, email works too well!
Serendipity depends on the quality of our networks, both in terms of who we know and the amount of activity the passes between the nodes. A good way to understand the power of relationships in an information or social network is through the theory of “small worlds” (see chapter 5 of my book Information-Driven Business).
Ironically, in an era when people talk about electronic isolation, social networks, that is who we know, are more important than ever. Serendipity relies on people who we know, at least vaguely, promoting content in a way that we are likely to see.
Just as control freaks worry about relying on serendipity, those that are more relaxed run the risk of relying too much on information finding its way mysteriously to them at the right time. Those that don’t understand why it works, won’t understand when it won’t work.
Far from making experts and consultants redundant, this increasing trend towards having the right information available when it’s needed is making them more necessary than ever before. The skill experts bring is more than information synthesis, something that artificial intelligence is increasingly good at doing and will become even better at in the near future. The job of experts is to find connections that don’t exist on paper, the cognitive leaps that artificial intelligence can’t achieve (see Your insight might just save your job).
The first thing is to be active posting updates. Networks operate through quid quo pro, in the long-term we get back as much as we give. In the office, we call this gossip. Too much gossip and it just becomes noise but the right amount and you have an effective social network. Those people who only ever silently absorb information from their colleagues quickly become irrelevant to their social circle and gradually get excluded.
The second is to be constantly curious, like a bowerbird searching and collecting shiny pieces of information, without necessarily knowing how they will all fit together. The great thing about our modern systems is that massive amounts of tagged content is easy to search in weeks, months and years to come.
Finally, have some sort of framework or process for handling information exchange and picking a channel based on: criticality (in which case email is still likely to be the best medium), urgency (which favours various forms of messaging for brief exchanges), targeted broadcast (which favours posts explicitly highlighted/copied to individuals) or general information exchange (which favours general posts with curated social networks). Today, this is very much up to each individual to develop for themselves, but we can expect it to be part of the curriculum of future generations of children.
No matter how often it seems to happen, almost by magic, information serendipity is no accident and shouldn’t be left to chance.