Envisioning and shaping the future of work and business.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Information needs to flow, damn it!

In an organization, you never know when or where innovation will happen, where ideas will pop up and where they will come to life. But what you should know is that if information does not flow freely, innovation is less likely to happen. To quote Oliver Wendell Holmes:
"Many ideas grow better when transplanted into another mind than the one where they sprang up."
Ideas simply need to be allowed to find the place where they have the right conditions to shoot off and grow. Information is the carrier of ideas, and communication is about moving information (ideas) from one place (mind) to another.

It is the same thing with collaboration. For collaboration to be likely to happen in an organization, information must flow as freely as possible. Otherwise we will not find new people to collaborate with, e will miss a lot of opportunities or other reasons to collaborate (synergies, reuse...), and it will be hard to collaborate since the ability to easily communicate and exchange information is key in any collaboration, especially in large and distributed organizations.

So how come so many people seem to have a problem with letting information flow as freely as possible? Why do they keep their information - regardless of what type of information it is and how sensitive it might be - for themselves until someone, typically a person they know in real life, explicitly asks for it? Why do they force other people to develop detective skills so they can find out who hoards on what information? Why don't they just expose what they have to as everybody that could benefit from it? Aarrgghhh!

There are of course reasons, reasons that can be found in human nature.

One reason is that we as humans are risk averters and are biased against openness. The following quotes are from a post by David Weinberger who blogged live from a seminar about the nature of openness by James Boyle, chairman of Creative Commons and teaches law at Duke:

"We don’t expect openness and collaboration to generate what they do. We overestimate the risks. We underestimate the risks of closed systems and overestimate closed systems’ benefits."

"Q: Is the bias a metaphor or an inherent inability to understand openness?
A: About 80% is explained by the fact that for most of my generation’s lives, our experience of property was with physical things; if I have it, you can’t. There are economic benefits to knowing who owns it. The closed intuitions generally work there."
Another reason is that many people are very afraid to be misunderstood. Being misunderstood sometimes seems to be the worst things that can happen, close to being injured a car accident or hit by lightning. Letting information go increases the likely-hood of being misunderstood (many people do not understand that you can avoid or fix it with rich, frequent, informal and interactive communication).

If you are a frequent reader of my blog, you might have stumbled upon and recall my three principles of Information Management. If you haven't, read these and you will better understand my reasoning. But to avoid misunderstandings ;-), I will repeat them shortly.


Data and content can be managed with the means of (information) technology, but we cannot manage information and knowledge with technology. This is because information and knowledge exist only in our own heads. What we can do however is to try to conceptualize what we know and encoded it into content - text, images, sound and video. We can also try to identify the intended receivers and make the content available to them. But we cannot guarantee that they will understand what we are trying to say to them or that they will act as we want them to even if they do understand. We can only hope that they get our message and that it is persuasive enough and that they have the motivation required to act as we want them to.


There is no value in information which is not – sooner or later – being used. Information that might be of use sooner or later holds a potential value, but that value is not realized until it is actually used for something. Simply put, information is just a means to an end.


To realize this value potential, the information needs to flow. It needs to flow to the people who needs it to achieve their goals. It needs to flow to them whenever they need it and wherever they are. To understand.

Information needs to flow, damn it!

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