Adding Meaning & Value to Information — Final Presentation

Following is the gist of my recent presentation in San Jose on “Adding Meaning & Value to Information”.

Dave Snowden’s famous comment about knowledge is that “we know more than we can say, and we can say more than we can write down”. In his case it has taken him four years to write the book on complex adaptive systems that he teaches in a three day course, and in neither the book nor the course could he hope to explain more than a fraction of all that he has learned on the subject.

Those of us who manage written information therefore have a great challenge. How can we make what is written down more meaningful, more valuable? How can we make it “make more sense”? Here are ten principal ways to do so (the links in this chart are to illustrations or further discussions of each tool or skill):

Processes that Add Meaning to Information: Valuable ‘End-Products’ of these Processes: Some Tools and Learnable Skills Supporting these Processes:
1. Paying attention; being aware and mindful; not skimming Deeper understanding;
Works of art
Training: attention skills; Meditation; Presence
2. Interpreting; Reflecting/considering; Drawing on examples from personal experience; Combining/integrating with other personal knowledge Insights

Training: critical thinking; Desktop search tools (for combining); Consultation & conversation (e.g. book circles)
3. Synthesizing/distilling; Simplifying (without over-simplifying) Synopses Blogs/diariesCartoons; Mindmaps/concept maps; FAQs
4. Imagining; Applying Applications (real and potential); Practice Training: imaginative/ creative thinking; Creative writing
5. Modeling; Illustrating; Systems thinking; Mapping Representations & maps; Systems diagrams; Models Visualizations & graphics; Tables: Ecolanguage (animated visualizations); Single frames; Mapping/ systems thinking tools
6. Stories: Reading, hearing, internalizing, narrating, memorizing, retelling stories Memorable lessons/learnings; Vicarious experiences; Context Story templates/ models (myths, fables, storyboards etc.); Stories of all kinds and forms; Training: listening/ storytelling skills
7. Analyzing; Inferring significance & consequences; Deciding on resultant actions Implications; Action plans; Better basis for decisions Analytical report templates (structured thinking etc.)
8. Analogizing; Reorganizing; Restating (“in other words”); Re-enacting/re-framing Metaphors; Analogies; Allegories; Alternative perspectives; Shoe-on-the-other-foot POV Reframing tools (e.g. Lakoff’s work)
9. Recording; Photographing;
Observing first-hand
Observations; Reviewable detailed recordings & transcripts; Interviews Mindmaps and other recording tools; Cameras & presence tools; Cultural anthropology tools
10. Conversing

Others’ experiences, interpretations, perspectives & additional information All P2P communication tools (telephone etc.); Conversation tools (talking stick etc.); Directories & people-finders
11. Canvassing; Surveying Collective wisdom Canvassing tools, including wisdom of crowds, electronic markets
12. Collaborating Others’ ideas, perspectives & ideas Wikis, whiteboards, other virtual presence & collaboration tools; Open Space & other collaboration methods

Here’s an example of how these ten ways can be applied to some excellent, but unrefined and under-appreciated information: George Monbiot’s new book on global warming, Heat:

  1. Paying attention: Most of us only absorb a small proportion of what we read or see. Perhaps because we now deal with so much information, of which little is really important, our attention is so divided that we skim, and browse, everything, and therefore run the risk of missing what’s critical. Unless you’re a more skillful reader than I am, you need to read Monbiot’s book twice, carefully, to really appreciate his arguments, and also to appreciate their Achilles’ heel. While the book Presence is a bit new-agey for most businesspeople’s taste, it’s one approach to achieving a deeper understanding of information than most of us are capable of today. 
  2. Interpreting: It was when I started thinking about the leaks in my own house, relating Monbiot’s arguments to my personal situation, that they began to make more sense and take on a greater urgency. In addition, combining the information in Monbiot’s book (with the solutions to global warming) with that in Flannery’s The Weather Makers (about the causes of global warming) made both books more sensible.
  3. Synthesizing: A lot of people learn by distilling information down to its essence. That’s one of the reasons that a site like the hugely popular Peak Oil primer Energy Bulletin picked up my review of Monbiot’s book. Corporate think-tanks are beginning to use cartoonists to capture the key learnings of brainstorming sessions. And blogs are increasingly being used by three corporate constituencies (subject matter experts, newsletter editors and community of practice coordinators), even while most of the business world lags behind in adopting blogs as excellent means of synthesizing and adding context to corporate information.
  4. Imagining: As I read Monbiot’s book, I was constantly imagining (a) what the world would look like if his proposals were implemented, (b) what would need to happen here in Canada for his proposals to be implemented, and (c) what role I could play in getting them implemented. This imagining added greatly to my understanding of the book’s arguments, and the possibilities they present.
  5. Modeling: This visualization from a 1996 paper by Dennis Hartmann captures in one diagram a lot of information about the causes of global warming. Monbiot’s and Flannery’s books would both have been better if such visualizations had been included. While I was reading Heat I made systems thinking diagrams in the inside cover to increase my understanding of the book’s critical arguments. As another example, my appreciation of how societies develop self-managed rule-sets to cope with complex adaptive systems was greatly augmented by watching this video of traffic in uncontrolled intersections in India’s cities, and then reading the rules that make this apparent chaos work so well.
  6. Stories: Monbiot’s book includes many anecdotes, mostly about his own situation, that help add context and immediacy to his arguments, and make them more memorable. Dave Snowden and Steve Denning both have websites with excellent information on how to tell, and appreciate the meaning of, anecdotes and stories.
  7. Analyzing: As I read Heat, I used the Pyramid Principle structured thinking methodology to annotate the key points of the book. My synopsis and review of the book is the result, largely a transcription of my annotations. It’s how I recognize the implications of what I read — in effect, what it means.
  8. Analogizing: Monbiot doesn’t use analogies often, and hs work suffers for it. As I read the book, I was constantly restating what he was saying “in other words”. But I too have a lot to learn about developing and using effective metaphors. Unfortunately, the people I have known who use them the most, use them badly. They need to be developed carefully and thoughtfully, and used sparingly. The world needs more Lakoff, since good analogies start with being able to see things from different perspectives.
  9. Recording: If you’ve ever listened to, or watched, the tape of an event you attended live, you probably realize how much you miss, or get wrong, the first time around. I’ve started using mindmaps to document all my meetings, displaying them on screen at the front of the room so that errors and omissions can be picked up in real time. It’s an amazing, and humbling, experience. Thanks to training from Steelcase, I’ve also learned the valuable skill of cultural anthropology. Not only does this training hone your observation skills — it teaches you what to look for.
  10. Conversing: Since we first appeared on this planet, conversation has been the principal means by which we exchange context-rich information. And because it’s so effective (if time-consuming) it still is. I had a conversation with someone who had borrowed my copy of Heat shortly after I read it, and I think I learned more from that conversation than I did from reading the book. No wonder book circles are so popular.
  11. Canvassing: Prediction markets, which draw on the enlightened self-interest of the many, can glean collective intelligence that cannot be captured any other way. These are now a major focus of the Knowledge Management community, which sees them as one way to tap ‘The Wisdom of Crowds’. The key to getting value from this wisdom is asking the right questions (appropriately ‘qualified’ crowds are best at answering closed-ended questions that ask for predictions, factual information, decisions, or root causes) of the right crowd (the largest possible number of objective, independent, basically-informed people, who are motivated to provide the best answer — often because, as employees or customers, they have a stake in the result).
  12. Collaborating: Of all the tools and techniques that can add meaning to information, this is the category that has the most promise and has been the most disappointing. Too many collaboration and ‘virtual presence’ tools are over-engineered, unintuitive, and too complicated to learn, and are therefore under-utilized. Even tools that offer the best features of wikis and other ‘groupware’  (like Jotspot — recently acquired by Google) are cumbersome and intimidating to the majority on the other side of the digital divide. But as they are made simpler and their more sophisticated features are shoved ‘under the hood’ their time will come. In the meantime, as soon as we develop greater skills in inviting and facilitating Open Space events, this methodology promises to help us understand and address complex problems far more effectively than any of the tools in our current toolkit.

Before these tools and techniques can begin to augment and partially supplant face-to-face conversations as a means of adding meaning and value to information, many more people need to become much more adept at using them. In my opinion, the best way organizations can do this is by reintermediating the role of the Information Professional:

  • Getting our librarians, front-line IT people, trainers and other back-office information professionals away from their desks and content management jobs and out in the field learning how front-line people in the organization use information and technology, helping them use it more effectively, and determining what information, in what formats, they find most valuable;
  • Training these IPs to use the tools and techniques listed above, getting them to apply this learning to the information that passes through their hands so that, in the hands of its requesters and ultimate recipients, it becomes much more intelligible, useful and valuable;
  • Enabling the IPs to teach these newly-acquired skills to the people on the front lines, so they too can get more meaning from information and add more value to it as they pass it on in turn; and
  • Involving the IPs in the design and development of new tools and techniques that add meaning and value to information — no one knows more than they do what is most needed.

The great challenge in this task is enlightening management — the majority of executives still seem to see IT as a means to disintermediate information and get rid of the IP role entirely. It has been my experience that no one in the modern organization is as under-utilized and under-appreciated as the information professional. To demonstrate this to senior management, IPs themselves will have to take the initiative, championing small-scale experiments that use some of the above-mentioned tools and techniques, and demonstrating how much value they can add. The peer-to-peer networks of IPs are very strong (perhaps due to the fact that no one else in most organizations knows or cares much about what IPs do), so I’m optimistic that, by working collaboratively, IPs will be very successful introducing such initiatives and experiments, and will ultimately take their rightful place as the highly-valued stewards of the modern organization’s most important and strategic resource — what it knows.

Boy, writing an article like this really makes me appreciate the truth of the statement in its second paragraph above — it takes a lot longer than actually delivering the presentation!

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3 Responses to Adding Meaning & Value to Information — Final Presentation

  1. Jon Husband says:

    wow .. great and very useful post. May I use it, or parts of it, with appropriate attribution ?

  2. Jon Husband says:

    yeah .. buy a Mac. After 2 weeks you will always wonder why you did not do so sooner ;-)

  3. Thank you for this valuable work. I’ve been in the information field for 34 years — 20 as a librarian and the past 14 in IT — and found that this piece boils down considerable insight into a tight space (indicative itself of the value of the ideas it contains). I think that an additional word that might be added to the “1. Paying attention” process is “empathizing” — taking some careful time to think about other people’s perspectives on issues of interest in order to gain a more holistic picture of the issue. Thanks too for pointing to the “Presence” book — I’d seen it but didn’t consider it much due to its approach; will take another look.

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