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From Hunter/Gatherer to Cultivator - Improving Decision-Making    [Date Added : 06/20/2005 ]
According to Brian Buck, writing in DM Review, for all of our sophisticated knowledge age gadgetry, we are still a society of primitive hunter/gatherers when it comes to working with the underlying knowledge that bombards us daily. Today's decision-makers spend 60-80 percent of their time merely collecting knowledge to support their work, pulling bits and pieces from the Web, e-mails, internal data stores and everywhere else data lives. They spend so much time tracking down knowledge, there is precious little time left to analyze and act upon it.

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review by psychiatrist Edward M. Hallowell ("Overloaded Circuits," January 2005) goes further, suggesting that when it comes to decision-making, we may act primitively in more ways than we realize. Dr. Hallowell explains that as we find ourselves overwhelmed by a non-stop stream of information requests in our professional lives, we panic and our bodies resort to lower-level brain functions concerned primarily with basic survival.

What does that mean? With gadgets beeping, deadlines looming and the clock ticking - our attention evaporates. We lose track of the details in our work. We make gut decisions, less concerned about whether they're good or bad, more concerned about getting them off our plate. We delete the e-mail that just arrived, not because it isn't important, but because we'll pull our hair out if the pile of work gets any taller.

What is the result? As individuals, we become more frustrated in our jobs and more prone to making mistakes. If we are decision-makers, our bad decisions are as detrimental to the health and productivity of the organization as the stress is detrimental to our own health and productivity. The consequences for the organization are missed opportunities, realized threats and costly - but preventable - mistakes. Cruelly, these consequences only tighten the vise, putting even greater pressure on decision-makers, leading to more panic in a vicious cycle.

Global competition requires making more decisions in more domains and responding faster to changes than ever before just to remain competitive. With the volume and rate of knowledge flows increasing at both the personal and organizational levels, with the balance shifting from structured data-like database records to unstructured data-like e-mails and Web sites, and with competition and regulators raising the stakes, decision-making will only get harder. What is a decision-maker to do? How can an organization keep up with all this data, let alone make good use of it?

Decision-makers in both the public and private sectors know that adding another report won't help, although they've tried it; it is just one more item in the inbox. They've learned that adding personnel won't help, although they've tried that, too; a big decision can't be split into two half-sized decisions. A long-term solution for organizational information overload requires a new kind of technology: a leap forward in the field of information management. As your organization begins to evaluate its options, here are five key requirements to keep in mind:

1. Work with all of your data at once, in real time

You can't advance as an organization of hunter/gatherers. Your decision-makers need access to information from a huge variety of sources, but your organization simply can't afford to have them spend 60-80 percent of their time hunting down details. That's why any viable knowledge management solution must begin by automating data collection. It should provide a unified view of information on the Web, in news feeds, on local file systems, in e-mails, in internal databases and everywhere else you find valuable data. Make sure your data collection system can handle high-volume, high-rate data streams.

2. Focus on facts, not documents

With all the data in one place, you'll need to understand it - and rapidly. With potentially millions of documents at your fingertips, however, working directly with the raw documents is out of the question. So is a keyword search. Imagine a Google search that returns 100,000 documents, and every one is relevant. How many would you read before giving up?

Therefore, your solution needs to analyze the documents and extract the interesting facts. Ideally, facts should be presented in a high-level, visual summary with drill down available to see the details. The payoff will be huge gains in productivity and huge gains in the thoroughness of research.

3. Find the patterns

Businesses spend too much time and effort reacting to surprises. The truth is that for every event, there's usually a precedent, but humans can't find the indicators because they're buried in data or because the chain of causes and effects is too complex to understand. Your solution needs to find these patterns so you can stop reacting and start planning. Fewer surprises mean less risk for the organization and less scrambling for the employees. The result is a focused, efficient organization.

4. Detect changes in your organizational environment and react first

By monitoring your data closely, you can discover new threats and opportunities before your competitors do. Unfortunately, studying the incoming data is like trying to sip water from a fire hose; you can't do it without some plumbing in between. Your solution has to provide that plumbing. It needs to understand what's important to your business or agency and find the important items in the deluge of data. It should show you at a glance what's new since the last time you checked in, and it should prioritize the actionable information, so you can spend precious time pursuing your best leads before your competition does.

5. Fit your workflow

A good solution should support the way you work, not the other way around. You need to collaborate and that requires more than copying and pasting screenshots into a PowerPoint presentation. A good solution should provide tools for joint investigations, consensus building and signoff. At the very least, you need a painless way for decision-makers to create and share their work from their desktops, with rich, interactive tours through the steps of their investigations, highlighting the key findings.

You also need to document the decision-making process, especially in today's regulatory climate. Documentation can be tedious and time-consuming, so your solution should shoulder the burden with a high degree of automation.

Finally, your organization needs to monitor the effects of decisions, measure success and adjust. A solution should support long-term, continuing investigations and handoff with minimal overhead.

(extract of the article 'From Hunter/Gatherer to Cultivator: a Five-Step Process for Taking Control in the Information Age' by Brian Buck, DM Direct, June 14, 2005. Copyright 2005 DM Review and SourceMedia, Inc.)
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