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Too much information?

FT.com / Columnists / Lucy Kellaway - When too much information harms the office.

In the past, books were a rare luxury. Even a wealthy man's library consisted only of a collection of classics to be re-read at intervals. English language publishers today produce more books in a day than any of us can hope to read; most of them - to be kind - never destined to be classics. So we read our favourite reviewers and listen to our friends with good literary taste. Then we select our intellectual nourishment from this cornucopia. Are we nostalgic for the era when a well-read gentleman had actually read all there was to read? Of course not.

Likewise, in business, there can never be too much information. There can only be too little analysis. As the tide of data continues to rise, we will need increasingly to employ analysts to dam it and channel it usefully. The most successful companies will be the ones best able to manage that. Would it really be better if there were only trickles of data and therefore no need for such efforts? Besides, won't the same technologies that make publishing so commonplace, also develop to allow us to extract better information from data chaos?

I disagree with Lucy Kellaway when she writes that:

The trouble with the information age is that there are so many people talking simultaneously. Leaders surely need to do not more listening but more ignoring.

In a literal sense, she is right. No-one can absorb all the data out there. We all "ignore" almost all of it. But the data a leader relies on had better be the best. His team must trawl the seas of information with big nets, before bringing him the choicest specimens. The temptation will be to present them delicately filleted, poached and garnished to his taste, but his success will depend more on them being representative than tasty.

Ms Kellaway writes that leaders in business need;

...to find a way of dealing with the many beastly things that are written about them on the internet.

Is that so difficult? Few rise to the top without developing a thick skin and those few will not last long. The way for leaders to deal with "beastly things" written about them is to treat them as data to be filtered. As mass publishing becomes a commonplace, the weight of the written word will gradually decline. Postings on Facebook, blogs and Twitter resemble newspaper articles only in being written. They carry only the emotional weight of chatter in the public bar. A splash in a torrent of little-read writing should be of no great concern. Only over-reaction by those written about can make it more.

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