From Bullshit to Wisdom: Dealing with Information Overload
Generally we classify information into three basic levels: data, information and knowledge.
In a recent article in Admap, Omar Mahmoud proposes a more detailed hierarchy of eight classifications, based on the subjective criteria of usefulness. The following is a summary of Omar´s article I have saved in my "keeper" file on basic craft skills for planning - under the 4 INs (Information, Interpretation, Insight and Inspiration). Here then are Omar´s 8:
- Bullshit - consists of statements that maybe true but are too general and positive to be responded to. If a statement´s opposite doesn´t make sense that statement isn´t very helpful. "We make good quality products" is not an enlightening statement given the opposite of "We make poor quality products."
Bullshit often results from the repetitive out-of-context use of terms that once had a meaning. Top of Omar´s list are words such as strategy, paradigms, holistic, vision, harmony, win-win, and statements such as "it´s a journey".
- Noise - is the opposite of data. Data can be organized and turned into information, then knowledge. Noise is harmful and acts as a fog preventing us from seeing the more relevant data. The information displayed on in-flight screens is a good example: the outside temerature is noise and not very useful. However, a change in the flight arrival time allows us to plan ahead and take decisions. In market research data from non-valid questions and techniques are mostly noise. Out of context pieces of data, such as the percentage of of decisions made in or out of store, are special kinds of noise.
- Data - are raw facts that need refinement before we can put them to good use.Too much published data contains numbers that only experts can make sense of.
- Information - is organized data. The size of a market based on the population, adjusted by income or purchasing power, is information. Information is the bridge between data and knowledge.
- Knowledge - is learning you can act on, sooner or later. A market analysis that addresses a specific action orientated question is knowledge.
- Laws - are simplified generalizations from accumulated knowledge that apply in many situations. The 80/20 rule is a simple, but highly versatile law. Laws are useful when their rationale and applicability is well understood.
- Mental Models - are conceptual tools that combine several rules into a useful construct that allows us to structure existing knowledge. Maslow´s hierarchy of needs is a useful model. Models have the additional benefit of highlighting what we don´t know as much as what we do. Models are rarely 100% accurate, but they provide a framework for organizing and advancing knowledge.
- Wisdom - is the ability to internalize contrarian laws and know which ones to use under which circumstances. Only 1% of what we know is wisdom.
So the challenge is: to dismiss the bullshit and noise in the system, to have the insight to internalize the knowledge, models and frameworks we have available and then to have the wisdom to know the difference. Because probably 90% of the information we are presented with is going to be bullshit or noise and that is a lot worse than the basic law of content: 10% is great; 20% is OK and 70% is irrelevant rubbish.