What Our Dysfunctional and Evolving ‘Information Behaviours’ and Information Skills Mean for Our Future

ProcessOfExpositionOn the KM speaker/unconference circuit, I am often asked to talk about the dysfunctional ‘information behaviours’ that impede learning and knowledge sharing. The list of these behaviours, many of them suggested by you readers, now stands at 25:

Dysfunctional Behaviours Caused by Information Politics:

  • Shoot the Messenger: Better to leave the boss in the dark than be the bearer of bad news; besides, the boss doesn’t want to know anyway. Bad news spreads like wildfire horizontally in organizations, but rarely vertically up or down.
  • Peer-to-Peer Preference: We trust our peers with information, but not our ‘superiors’ (they might use it against us) or subordinates (they might misuse it out of ignorance, and they don’t need to know anyway).
  • Help Friends / Hurt Foes: We’ll share this with the people we like, but we’re sure not going to share with them, even if not doing so will cause them, and the organization, big problems.
  • Cult of Leadership: Whatever the boss says must be right, even if it seems obviously wrong. Meanwhile the boss dares not ask subordinates for their opinions for fear of appearing weak.
  • Louder Voices: Tell people something often enough, and vehemently enough, and eventually they will believe it’s true. And why didn’t you speak up with that great idea when we were talking about this at the meeting?
  • Anti-Stories: Did you hear that self-serving crap from the boss? Here’s what’s really going on…
  • Like-Mind Groupthink: OK, so we’re all agreed, we’re not in trouble, it’s not as bad as it looks, and if we just stick to what we’re doing we’ll be fine, right? And let’s promote Jan to the Board, I like the way s/he thinks.
  • Cult of Expertise: The customers think we should do x, the staff insist we should do y; let’s bring in outside experts to give their objective (and expensive) advice on what we should really do.

Dysfunctional Behaviours Caused by Information Unawareness:

  • ‘Cost of Not Knowing’ Unawareness: Why didn’t anyone know, or tell us, that one storm breach in New Orleans would cost a trillion dollars in losses, and why do we still not realize that rebuilding it is just throwing good money after bad?
  • Unawareness of What Others We Meet Know: I met Jan the other day and while we talked about x, I had no idea s/he had a ton of experience and knowledge about y. Talk about missed opportunity!
  • Personal Content Mismanagement: I think it’s here somewhere, but I can’t find anything on my hard drive. Why does everyone assume we all know how to use desktop technology and organize information effectively?

Dysfunctional Behaviours Caused by Faulty Sense-Making:

  • Frame Dependency: That presentation was like something in a foreign language: I didn’t get it/like it at all — why did others give it a standing ovation?
  • Information Overload: Apparently Jan sent me the information I needed by e-mail last week, and it was also in the new database, but I don’t recall seeing either. 
  • Canít Tell All We Know: It’s all a matter of entering the right phrases and terms and qualifiers in Google, but I can’t tell you how it do it — you just have to practice until you learn.
  • Preference for Images & Stories: Now I get it — why didn’t you show me this graph/tell me that story earlier instead of giving me that long analysis?
  • Different Ways of Learning: I learn by writing, he learns by listening, she learns by doing — no wonder this classroom training session isn’t working.
  • JIT vs. JIC (Half-Life of Learning): I vaguely remember reading/learning about this a while ago, but now I’m damned if I can recall the lesson.

Dysfunctional Behaviours Caused by Poor Reward Systems:

  • From-Scratch Satisfaction: Jan spent six hours developing a presentation and graphic when the one we used for a customer in the same industry last year would have been perfect — but Jan didn’t like the aesthetics of it.
  • Better Safe than Sorry: This could revolutionize our industry, I agree, but it’s just too much of a stretch for us, it’s outside our comfort zone.
  • Tragedy of the Commons: We just looked at the centralized knowledgebase and discovered that the content is almost all obsolete and no one wants to take responsibility for keeping it current. 
  • Competing on the Curve: Don’t give this information to him, he and I are up for the same promotion.
  • Reward-Driven Behaviours Donít Last: In the month before the contest deadline, the number of submissions soared, while quality plummeted; right after the deadline passed, the number of ideas submitted dropped to zero.
  • No Reward for Sharing: I’m too busy looking after ‘my’ customers to help you look after ‘yours’ — ask someone else.
  • Fun vs Effectiveness: So you spent two days on the fancy graphic and three on the design session, but only one day documenting the thought process and ideas they produced, and none at all surveying the customers for their opinions.
  • Work-Arounds: We do it this way because the way the manual/boss says to do it is ineffective and inefficient — but don’t tell the boss we said that.

These 25 dysfunctional behaviours occur in every type of organization, but they proliferate best in large, hierarchical organizations, where communications up and down the hierarchy are impeded by politics, risk aversion, cynicism and sheer complexity. The solutions for most of them are obvious, but not easy, and frequently run counter to organizational culture. I’ve proposed four key solutions (one-on-one personal productivity coaching, a decentralized personal content management strategy, just-in-time canvassing processes for critical information, and secure automatic harvesting of information from hard drives) under the umbrella Personal Knowledge Management (PKM), as a solution for the most critical dysfunctional information behaviours in large enterprises, but few organizations are yet beyond the pilot stages of PKM.

What’s more, information behaviours are evolving as older workers retire (or are outsourced) and younger workers take their place. I have observed some notable differences between the information behaviours of the Baby Boomer generation (those born 1945-1960, now 45-60 years old) and those of the Gen Y/ Millennium generation (those born 1980-2000, now 5-25 years old). Specifically, I believe members of the Millennium generation are more likely to:

  • Prefer and be more comfortable with oral rather than written communication; even their writing style is ‘conversational’ — they write like they talk;
  • Tell stories (“and then…”) to get their point across, instead of ‘making points’ (remember when we used to hold up our fingers to enumerate our ‘points’?);
  • Get information from peers instead of reading mainstream media;
  • Get that information iteratively (not precisely or completely the first time, but with rapid-fire incremental additions, amplifications, clarifications) — it’s a conversational rather than expository process that is not efficient but is effective;
  • Be very skeptical of so-called ‘facts’, and believe everything is spun;
  • Be apolitical, not because they don’t care, but because they feel disenfranchised, because they don’t expect that to change, and because they don’t believe it really makes any difference;
  • Manage information through ‘continuous partial attention’ — not multitasking, but continuously browsing for richer veins of information and switching among them;
  • Be opportunistic, rather than planning ahead and investing longer-term — ‘just-in-time everything’;
  • Lack critical life skills because of a lack of practice and experience in applying them: critical thinking, imagination and creative thinking, entrepreneurship (organizing/authoring/starting something really new), and especially research (not the same as ‘search’);
  • Suffer from attention deficit, and inability to concentrate and focus;
  • Expect little from the future (material wealth, peace, security, or the possibility of ever ‘retiring’);
  • Have no inkling of what would happen, or what to do, in the case of a disaster that hit everyone (a Great Depression, global war, disease pandemic etc.) — because most of the people who could tell them meaningful first-hand stories about these things are dead;
  • Expect information (and everything else that can be reduced to ‘bits’) to be free;
  • Be more amenable to a Gift Economy and less attached to ‘market’ ideology;
  • Have more malleable ‘frames’ and worldviews;
  • Be fatalistic; and
  • Take chances.

Note that these are generalizations and relatives — shifts in the normal curve with plenty of exceptions. Baby boomers are not, for the most part, the opposite of these things, just slightly less so.

These behaviours have a powerful impact on how people learn, and on what they are inclined to spend time doing. So if you’re an employer, recruiter, teacher, parent or activist, here are some things you might choose to do a bit differently with Millennium Generation members:

  • Don’t expect them to read manuals or even blogs. Talk with them, listen and answer their questions, learn how to tell good stories, tell them what you think it means, tell them what you think they could/should do but respect their decision to do otherwise, and whenever possible show them, rather than just telling them.
  • Understand the power of the network and viral communication. Once they come to believe, accept or learn something, they’ll spread the word quickly and effectively. Fortunately, they are deeply skeptical, otherwise this might actually be dangerous.
  • Be completely honest. Trust is paramount to them; betray that trust at your peril.
  • Don’t try too hard to appeal to them politically, or try to recruit them into the political process (including ‘office politics’). If they want to play games they’ll do it in cyberspace, the ballpark or at the garage poker night. They’re more inclined to work around the political process than fight it.
  • They’re opportunistic, so give them opportunity, and challenge them to take a chance (as long as it isn’t one you know is foolish — setting people up to fail is cruel and dishonest). We learn from failure, too, so make sure they have room and permission to fail. They may surprise you by succeeding beyond your wildest expectations. 
  • Teach them the critical life skills listed above. They’re going to need them. Give them practice applying them, and make that practice fun by making it about something they care about.
  • Help them filter and mediate information, since most of the crap comes from our generation. As Bill Maher says, “the job of the media is to make what’s important interesting”. Be their media.
  • There is no one right answer, so spare them the orthodoxy and ideology. What good has it done us? Help them understand why things are the way they are, rather than telling them how they should be. Trust them then to know what to do.
  • Encourage them to make the Gift Economy a reality. They ‘get it’, and they can do it if we run interference for them. Knowledge is the great equalizer, and by making and keeping information free, we are helping create the equality and resiliency we will need more and more in the future.
  • Be there for them. They need us, and our prosperity has massively mortgaged their future, so we owe them big time. Being there when they need our guidance, support,encouragement is the least we can do.

Diagram: The research process, a critical information skill that’s now in short supply.
Thanks to the members of IFI for inspiring this post.

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2 Responses to What Our Dysfunctional and Evolving ‘Information Behaviours’ and Information Skills Mean for Our Future

  1. Peter says:

    What do you think of this? http://www.we-make-money-not-art.com/archives/008433.php“As you go through life, you acquire a reputation. Do you pay your bills on time? How do you treat library books? Do you forget to return money you’ve borrowed? This reputation affects your ability to gain access to things and services. In the future, with spimes and smart objects as actors in a world of ubiquitous information, your objects could be rented to anyone at any time. Gaining access to those objects could be as simple as having a great reputation.”I find this disturbing as I’m far from perfect. I think is just one more stress inducer that we can all do without.

  2. Thomas Watson says:

    Don’t expect them to read blogs? Come now David!Hmmm aside from that I am wondering, do you really think that Gen-Y kids are more likely to relate things to people via stories then their parents/elders?Well, let me make some strained assumptions for a hypothetical.-I’m going to assume that your social mileau is that of university educated people.-Those baby-boomers that are university educated make up a significantly smaller proportion of their cohort then uni-educated kids today. As a result, uni-educated baby boomers formed a more cohesive sub-culture, lets call it academia.-One of the features of this sub-culture is the move away from the mainstream use of stories as a medium for sharing information. For academics, this is far too folksy and unclear.-While this sub-culture exists today, it has become permeated by the mainstream, now that rates of university education have increased. Consequently, story telling from the mainstream re-enters academia.-Thus, you *see* an increase in the incidents of story telling in the new generation, when it may well instead be a different type of shift.And, lots of assumptions there, I’m very good at making things up and imagining unusual possiblities for things.Great post. A lot of it rings true, at times to my disappointment. Well, no fatalism for me! Once more into the breach

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