Monday, January 10, 2005

Information Overload Makes Better Specialists

Mary Hodder has posted on Information Overload -- a problem dear to many people's hearts.  Mary talks about the tangible benefit and relief she experienced after allowing herself to operate in "skim" mode vs. "fully understand" mode when facing firehose, as well as differing comfort levels with skimming based on age.  Somehow skim mode allows her a subtle but powerful release of the pressure to read thoroughly and follow all threads to understanding, which in turn puts a friendlier face on info overload and makes her more effective:

"So a while ago, when I first started seeing this difference, I decided to skim, like a skipping rock, certain kinds of information and data, because I found that living with less anxiety actually allowed me to take in more and understand it more deeply. I am not sure if this is all real, or just something on the way to understanding better what really is happening as I take in this flood of data and watch people interacting with it. But I do know that I'm much happier filtering more information I want to understand by type, as I take things in, and doing surveys in the flood of digital information, instead of feeling obligated to consume every bit before I can understand something." 

I can definitely relate to this sense of liberation.  I summarize my version of this tension by tracing it back to my "jack of all trades master of none" phobia.  Not sure where I got it, but it's a little voice that I can remember hearing going way way back.  While I think there are obvious and universal benefits to "specializing", you can go too far.  It's ultimately why I dropped out of a CS PhD program, and I've been whittling away at this phobia slowly but surely ever since, accelerating as time passes.

Don't get me wrong, I'm a focus maniac, and think most people, myself included, are well served by hanging their hat on one or maybe two "specializations."  But while specializing, it's equally important to cross-pollinate.  Without it, it's much harder to be an effective specialist, and particularly hard to innovate.  In growing your ecosystem, information overload can be a blessing and not a curse.  From your sturdy oak perch, throw a bunch of seeds in the surrounding field and see what grows.  Most will be small and easily crushed under pressure (i.e.. shallow knowledge acquired while skimming), but some will thrive in unexpected ways to ultimately make a more beautiful landscape. 

As an example downside of over-specialization I point to Evelyn Rodriguez's recent, "This is what can happen whey you think narrowly post:

Reading this article has me seething - and it's an unfortunate reminder that over-specialization is dangerous not just in business:

"The earthquake centre had been inundated with calls since 8.05am when tremors were felt in Bangkok and the northern capital of Chiang Mai.... Burin Vejbanterng, the duty officer [for the government-run Earthquake Bureau in Thailand] at the time [of the Sumatra earthquake] said: 'To be honest I did not think of the waves because my speciality is earthquakes.'"

That's pretty extreme.  I don't think Burin skims much.

Another take comes from Chris Anderson.  In discussing the importance of metadata in the context of ecommerce and the Long Tail, Chris supports the notion that skimming is a nice compliment to "going deep", and by extension is an effective info overload strategy:

"As Amazon's Jeff Bezos explains it, for a product that a potential purchaser has a great deal of interest in, no amount of information is too much: from reader and trade reviews to service records, the more they can learn about a product the more comfortable they are buying it. But for products that they just don't care much about, even something as simple as knowing what most other people bought can make the difference between being frozen by overwhelming choice and purchasing with confidence."

Squint a bit and this pretty much summarizes my strategy.  Go deep and devour when I'm presented with something important and meaningful, but strive to leave time to skim a diverse set of specialist, as wide and as deep as I can handle in a given day.  With this in mind, I face info overload a bit more peacefully.


Adam Trachtenberg said...

I like to believe that people who are "jack[s] of all trades master[s] of none" have the ability to be a highly effective "boundary spanners" because they're able to understand multiple groups, bridge them, and synthesize them together in new ways.
"Boundary spanners are well-positioned to be innovators, since they have access to ideas and information flowing in other clusters. They are in a position to combine different ideas and knowledge, found in various places, into new products and services."

Steve Shu said...

Good points. I tend to have a "jack" MO. FWIW - the bridging concept can be a difficult one to both communicate and appreciate. Sometimes it can be overrated as well as unique to the "jack" types. If someone on the other side of the network being bridged actually has connections (or thinks they do) to bridge the chasm or they undervalue/discount the other networks being brought in, this diminishes the perception of the bridge person.
Outside of the network bridging concept, I think its also useful to think about a "jack" type as someone that can temporarily provide more bandwidth to an org in certain areas. Bottlenecks in an org are always shifting. Sometimes the "jack" can fill in and help to get an org over a hump without having to take advantage of the network advantages.

David Locke said...

I always see information overload as the driving reason behind information design. Overload springs from the commodity we call a data dump. Overload is about a lack of priority in the data and the inability to find just the correct content to get to the point immediately rather than hours later after much thought and data manipulation.
This week I'm trying to learn game theory. I've went round with game theory before. But, this week I got lucky and found several information sources that were written at my level of mathematical sophistication. In the past the stuff always zipped along just out of reach.
So the defining issue is fitness to purpose. Overload results from a lack of that fitness.