~~ INFORMATION FLOW #2 ~~ June 2002 ~~~ Ramana Rao ~~~ @ inxight.com
Knowledge management initiatives within enterprises have focused
primarily at the organizational level on grand efforts like optimizing
social networks, creating a culture of sharing, capturing lessons
learned, and yes, improving information flow. Important matters, but
we must not lose sight of the fact that organizations are made up
ultimately of people, operating autonomously. And people canít or
wonít do what they canít or wonít do. Nobel laureate Herbert Simon is
quoted widely on a comment aimed at the real edge, between a person
"A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention."
-- Herbert Simon
~~~ IN THIS ISSUE ~~~ June 2002 ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
* Bounded Rationality and Flow
* Information Flow > Information Technology
* Interesting Questions Cont.
~~~ Bounded Rationality and Flow ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Herbert Simon received a Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on
behavioral models of organizational decision-making. Prior economic
theory was primarily based on the concept that humans behaved as
"rational creatures." Simon counters, in the concept of "bounded
rationality," that uncertainties about the future and constraints on
acquiring information plays a major role. These limits drive people
to "satisfice" in their decision-making as opposed to "optimize"
prior economic theory. People don't look for the best choice.
Instead, they look for a choice that works given the constraints on
Reflect on your experiences in performing any planning,
decision-making or analysis task. And, on the supporting task of
collecting and using information. It's rare that we ever try or need
to find every document on some topic. Often we are satisfied with
just one document, or we give up with none. It isn't because we are
"satisfied" that we have "good enough" information, but
based on the time consumed or pain experienced.
Raul Valdes-Perez, who studied for years with Simon, commented in a
recent talk, that the problem is not really, as commonly stated,
information overload. But rather it's "information overlook."
Something isn't found that could make a difference. Such effects can
be cast at the level of business impacts like increasing costs or
impeding business performance or losing out to a competitor.
That's fine, if what we are doing is arguing that the problem is worth
solving. But as we focus on how best to solve the problem, we end up
right back at the human level and the tools used for accessing
information. The tools used can make a big difference to "time
consumed" or "pain experienced."
Let's turn these negatives on their head. When do we forget about
time, or continue to do something for hours completely engaged? The
psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, has studied this question (a
great one) his entire career in hundreds of studies with his students
and colleagues. In fact, it is his use of the word "Flow" that most
made the concept of "Information Flow" resonate for me. For me,
information flow is about the experience of each person as he or she
tries to reach a higher level of performance in their knowledge work.
~~~ Information Flow > Information Technology ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
We all know the phenomena of learning a word or concept and then
suddenly start seeing it everywhere. For example, for those of you
who weren't conversant on Herbert Simon's work, you will now be seeing
his name, "satisfice" and "bounded rationality"pop up all
launching this newsletter, this has been happening to me with
A recent encounter: I heard a talk by Jack Cooper entitled:
"Information Flow is the Lifeblood of any Organization," based on
years of experience as CIO of Bristol Myers Squibb and the Seagram
Company. Most of his first-hand examples were related to traditional
IT applications like ERP, supply chain and CRM, with some reference to
knowledge management and Web-based applications. Mr. Cooper espouses
the key role of seamless technology systems and applications in the
efficient flow of information.
I don't exactly disagree, but I do find myself wanting to say, but,
but, but there's more to it than that. Traditional IT disciplines
focus too much on integration of the technology infrastructure and not
enough on the integration of the human infrastructure.
Something-chain-systems tend to get bought and built from the back-end
toward the front. Furthermore, they get purchased, at least before
the recent hard turn in enterprise spending, without much of an
understanding of how they will be used (a required ingredient of
knowing how value will be generated).
Another issue is that traditional IT systems tend to focus on data
integration and delivery, and not much on documents and content.
Documents aren't exactly like data. They are information artifacts
created by humans for some purpose. The industry talks about text
documents as being unstructured, while talking about databases as
structured. This is certainly a reversal of terms looked at from a
human perspective. Can you see anything in that giant spreadsheet of
numbers pulled from the database? What about as you riffle through a
magazine at, say, a page a second?
A document is richly structured and meaningful not just in content,
but in its form and genre, in its significance in any given social
context, and in the way it is used. The challenge in information
access is more often about finding the relevant document than about
benefiting with a relevant document in hand. Meanwhile, we are busily
building the information chain to push more and more stuff. Wouldn't
it be better to identify what is really wanted at the end point? And
to deliver the stuff in ways that "satisficing" happens at a much
higher degree of performance.
At the end of the chain are individual human beings. That's certainly
what's interesting about blogs and personal Web sites ... but it
should not be forgotten even in the corporate knowledgement management
effort. We must understand what is happening at the "point of use"
between the user and the information system. There is no point to
knowledge except the point of use.
~~~ Interesting Questions Cont. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
I asked you for some questions in the last message. Shame, shame on
me, I must not have asked well or judged well on the risks of such a
plea, because I got a grand total of no questions. So here are three
How can we achieve the same richness in our electronic workspaces
and tools that many of our physical world equivalents have?
How can you find something when you don't know what you are
What would we found in an archeological dig of a corporation's
soft assets including all its people, software, databases,
documents, disks, and any other container of information or
~~~ Links ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Simon Asks, Reflects Raul
Raul Valdes-Perez is a CMU professor and a founder of Vivisimo. He
studied with Simon for years, and he has a great essay that captures
how a great thinker thinks about thinking.
Verbs of Information Access and Knowledge Work
My company, Inxight, uses a lot of verbs to describe the range of
functions that our software performs. Most of those verbs originally
applied to what humans do as they organize, use or share
information. I thought it would be interesting to gather up all those
verbs and their definitions.
"Find" is the verb that tends to get the most visibility, but
information access especially in the context of more complex knowledge
activities is much richer than this. Information professionals
appreciate the skills of "information literacy." It's worth looking
at the characterization of such skills by the Association of College
and Research Libraries, and then consider how software could aid or
harm the use or development of those skills.
Librarians Get No Respect
Last month, I made a reference to the under appreciation of librarians
or information professionals. IT often has too much power, while
information professionals and other "team members" have too little.
graduate student from University of Michigan's School of Information
shows that librarians can spit back.
Defining Knowledge Management
Steve Barth, a journalist that has covered knowledge management for
many years, wrote a column a couple of years ago that still seems
relevant. Oft-voiced rhetoric about "knowledge management" is that
it's an oxymoron, that managing knowledge kills it. We could all use
a better term. Or maybe not. In any case, this article puts the
non-problem of defining KM to rest.
Ramana Rao (rao @ inxight.com) is Founder & CTO of Inxight Software, Inc.
Copyright 2002 Ramana Rao. All rights reserved. Reproduction of
material from Information Flow without permission is prohibited.
You may freely forward this issue in its entirety.