Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Information overload – and how to deal with it (if you’re the one loading)

Most decisions in organisations require information. And we have to actively look for that information. We approach colleagues who have dealt with similar issues, are knowledgeable about the context, the customer or the technology, and try to incorporate their experiences and insights.

Nowadays, in our “knowledge economy”, many companies have realised the value of this internal expertise and set up databases, accessible through the firm’s intranet, that we can access and search. But now the problem is – more often than not – there is just so much of it…!

We’re swamped with information! How many databases can you access? How many documents can you read?! How many colleagues’ brains and wisdom can you electronically pick?!

And this is actually not only a problem for the people looking for information. In many organisations the providers of knowledge get rewarded when others use their stuff, in the form of increased respect in the company, heightened status, and sometimes even in terms of hard cash after their annual performance evaluations. How can you as a provider make yourself heard and seen in the plethora of the information quackmire?

Professors Morten Hansen and Martine Haas – at the time at the Harvard Business School – examined exactly this issue. They examined the electronic databases of one of the Big 4 accountancy firms and surveyed its 43 “practice groups” on their strategy of what documents to upload and when. And they came back with some pretty clear insights into what works and not.

You have to understand that these different practice groups face some simple but concrete choices: how selective are we going to be in terms of the documents we upload; are we going to upload pretty much everything we get our hands on or are we only going to put up a mere fraction of what we have? What is the maximum number of files we would like to put onto the system? Do we cover a fairly wide range of sub-topics or are we going to be much more concentrated in terms of the subjects we cover?

The trade-offs are pretty clear; if you upload very few documents, people can only access very few documents. But if you put up many of them, potential users may be turned off, lose the forest for the trees and turn their attention somewhere else in disgust (while swearing at you for the sheer overload and making rude hand gestures to their computer screen). But where does the balance lie?

Hansen & Haas found out that where the balance lies depends on what the topic is that you are publishing on. If the practice group was providing information on a topic that was covered by quite a few other groups (such as for instance “cost management”, “capital & asset management”, “financing & IPOs”), they were much better off being very selective in what they put on their site. Those who made few documents available quickly gained a reputation as the group which always delivered high quality stuff without swamping you with irrelevant, low-quality distractions. More people, as a result, accessed their pages.

In contrast, groups publishing on topics which were much less widely covered (such as “Peoplesoft”, “hospital service delivery” or “call centres”) were better off providing a much wider range of documentation, that readers could really sink their teeth in. They developed the reputation “for topic X you really need to go to practice group A” and flourished as a result.

Hence, the various suppliers of information within the company competed with each other for the attention of the employees looking for relevant knowledge. And, like in any market, they needed to adapt their strategy based on the specific product they were offering.