Information overload leaves much to consider

ON EXCELLENCE

July 18, 1994|By TOM PETERS

British Telecom research lab director Peter Cochrane sees a vision of tomorrow's electronic university in which inefficient campuses and libraries will be replaced by friendly electronic networks. The new scheme, he told London's Independent newspaper, will help people cope with information overload that currently forces them to spend 80 percent of their time finding information; far too little time is left for decision-making.

Cochrane belongs to a growing gang of technofreaks (MIT Media Lab boss Nicholas Negreponte is head man, perhaps) who want to help us tailor data to our narrow-band needs. What rubbish!

As an hour-a-day on-line "user" (addict?), I know the value of the information highway. And its limitations.

Consider Mussie Shore, a senior software designer at Lotus Development Corp. and one of the best "graphical user-interface designers," according to Industry Week. While working on a spread sheet design, Shore got to musing about a place mat at a Portsmouth, N.H., diner.

"It had a sort of coordinate system along the top and along the side," he recalled, "with an aerial view of Portsmouth and little numbers on some of these sketches of buildings and little circles with callouts that made a magnified version of the church or the historical general store that was pulled out to the side. I saw that this dinky place mat was communicating way more information about the lay of the land than I've ever been able to communicate with these high-powered computers."

Shore's vignette reveals the wellspring of almost all creativity -- unlocking dilemmas through insights gained in unlikely places.

I know it works for me. Ideas about corporate renewal come from spring barn cleaning in Vermont. Routine trips to the grocery store provide more "data" on customer service than reading the trade journals. Watching kids at play offers inspirations about self-organization.

And on it goes. Hall of Fame football coach Bill Walsh got his idea for ball-control passing from watching basketball games. He observed that teams given the ball out of bounds complete 90 percent of their in-bounds passes; why not the same in football? Walsh mused. Soon even his journeymen quarterbacks (let alone Joe Montana) were completing an unprecedented two-thirds of their tosses.

But what about facts -- cold, hard statistics? Guess what? There ain't any. Been following the health care debate? The principal players can't even agree on how many of us are uninsured -- estimates vary by millions. Ditto the new jobs debate: Some confidently proclaim, with (literally) a ton of supporting evidence, that most new jobs pay well; others confidently point to slave wages for most new positions.

Immigrants? Robbing us blind with their excess use of social services? Or making us rich with the taxes they pay? It depends who you ask. All are armed, of course, with reams of "incontrovertible" hard data.

In her book "Medicine & Culture: Varieties of Treatment in the United States, England, West Germany and France," Lynn Payer says, "Often all one must do to acquire a disease is to enter a country where the disease is recognized."

The Germans have a thing about hearts -- and many conditions diagnosed by German doctors as heart ailments would either be ignored or diagnosed as something else by U.S. medicos.

For the French, life is food and drink: Numerous problems classified as stomach or liver disorders in France are labeled differently in the United States.

Given such confusion, we probably ought to be spending 90 percent of our time collecting information, not just the 80 percent that worries British Telecom's Cochrane.

Don't tell that to the business schools. I've long thought their heavy reliance on case studies is a fatal flaw. Cases provide students with all the information, then the classroom debate centers on the deciding.

Truth is, deciding is a cinch. The real art in business lies in digging up oddball info that casts a new light on something. Trusting some info-highway "knowbot" (information-seeking robot) to do the job for you is loony. The results are likely to be about as effective as the attempts at computer-created novels.

Business is poetry. It's former Gannett Chairman Al Neuharth's passion for USA Today, and damn the research that labeled him a fool. It's Ted Turner's insane 1980 commitment to an all-news, 24-hour-a-day TV station -- known these days as CNN.

I eat numbers for breakfast -- I gorge on facts of all flavors. Yet, I know that anything I come across has at least 100 plausible explanations; moreover, anyone can produce convincing evidence that will completely negate the "hard" data I'm now devouring.

I also know, like Lotus' Mussie Shore, that inspiration is more likely to come from a place mat in a diner than from my next 10 hours on-line or a three-day conference of experts which I pay $2,000 to attend.

Tom Peters' column is distributed by the Tribune Media Services Inc., 720 N. Orange Ave., Orlando, Fla. 32801; (407) 420-8200.

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