Reflections: Information Inundation

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I have recently started to jot down some thoughts and reflections on my personal and career or collect bits and pieces of interesting information with a digital scrapbook. It helps me to archive some insights not just from myself but from others during discussions on topics of interest. One interesting conversation was one that I have with a Singaporean friend doing businesses in China during my recent trip to Beijing. The topic of interest is about information inundation and I will briefly share how the ability to navigate across information inundation is helpful to anyone from an entrepreneur to a research scientist.

Practically the first hour of the start of my day, I usually check into Google News to look for the headlines of the day and then to Google Reader. While that is happening, I have a twitter feed that collects all the news sources on a list so that I can get a real time perspective of any breaking news. With the amount of information I need to catch up on product development (mainly in the mobile and web space), technology news relating to my area of interest and interesting local news annotated by various aggregators in Singapore. Despite with so much information we processed through reading them, how much are really of value to us? That is not adding research reports from analysts in different industrial sectors which will totally flooded your reading list. The answer is not to get more sources or more data, because it is not possible to read everything. Then what should we do?

If you are trying to solve a problem, be it a business, social or personal, what are the essential pieces of information do you really need? Whenever I read my students’ research assignments, a common pattern can be spotted across most of them. They are trying to squeeze every ounce of information. In the end, they did not answer the question which I have put forward to them. The same goes for businesses, when knee jerk reactions can happen because of irrelevant information that derail the strategic objective of the company they are building. So, the conversation with my Singaporean friend in China came down to the following things which we deem to be essential in any area of interest to solve a problem:

  • What is the problem you are trying to solve?: This is the hardest question for me because it dominates my train of thought everyday, whether it’s a business or a research problem. Most people are able to state the question but do not really break the question down to what can be solved or not solved. Breaking down the problem is usually lacking in most people, which also explains why most people are overwhelmed by too much information. You can get a lot of information about a problem, but making on a judgement or forming an opinion on how the problem is solved is what is lacking in most people.
  • What are the essential pieces of information that you really need in the process of solving the problem or react to external circumstances which render your solution useless to the market?: Here’s how we frame the problem solving parts with the economics concept of demand and supply. In business, we should be asking whether there is a demand for the problem to be solved and then worked from the supply. If you are in the natural resource business like my friend do, his day to day problem to ascertain whether he should buy an develop the natural resource is dependent on whether people really need the problem. In addition, he provided an additional example by recounting his meetings with many wealthy individuals. The question he posed is: what do they really need? The answer seems to be ridiculously simple: (a) how do they grow their wealth more, (b) how do they ensure that their future generations can benefit from the wealth, for example sending them to good schools and (c) how they can have a better life, for example, better housing. In his words, because the needs are so simple, it’s almost difficult to sell them anything else if you focus on these objectives. The other piece of information after demand and supply, is essentially the external threat, whether there is something disruptive that can render your solution useless.
  • What should you not care about?: Usually, the problem with people getting updates from different sources is the inability to filter things that are irrelevant. Most of the time, they spend a lot of energy to work out what they care about. The same process can be made more efficient if they do the reverse, i.e. which of these pieces of information are just noise or irrelevant that you can chuck it out of the window immediately?

Ultimately, in everyone’s case, dealing with information inundation is pretty straight forward. The trait of a successful person, be it an entrepreneur or a research scientist, is to make the correct call to major decisions based on a few basic pieces of information and not matter whether lots of data can help or deter you.

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Bernard Leong

A Pragmatic Idealist