In my weekly routine, I try to strike a balance between academic thinking, practical thinking and the balance between the two.
Living in northern Vermont gives me the opportunity to create fun metaphors to think through complex topics, allowing me to add a bit of local color. December is typically a cold, dark and ‘stay inside’ kind of month around here. Yes, there is a little bit of last minute shopping to be done, but often the keyboard and Amazon suffice. However, there is typically little snow in December, thus no real good reason to go outside. As luck would have it, this year has been a little different, with 30 inches (75cm) of snow directly before New Years, kids sledding on the hill, me able to hit the slopes with my boys. This December was indeed, different.
What is the Right Amount of Information?
I am driving my daughter to gymnastics and present to you the following: it is 25 degrees Fahrenheit, snowing and there is 3 inches (~7.5 cm) of snow covering the road. I am traveling a meager 20 miles per hour. I ask, via twitter of course, if my foot should be on the accelerator or the brake, how would you answer me? Skipping the obvious, a stop sign or a car stopped ahead (It was a voice activated Tweet). Is the simple Tweet enough for you to answer my question?
What I am getting at here is that their are a few parts, first we have the data (temperature for example). Information then comes from assembling and analyzing the data. In this case, we have temperature, precipitation and road conditions. Knowledge comes first from putting the information together and adding context. It is snowing, the roads are covered and the temperature is not going to melt the snow. There is probably hard pack snow, on the roadway, underneath the freshly fallen snow. Wisdom is then applying experience and acting accordingly. I will try hard not to drive off the road, remembering that four-wheel drive is great for going, it does nothing for stopping.
In this situation, I am actually traveling up a hill, one way, (and down a hill on the return). This is an important piece of information, without it, an answer should not be given. So, it does depends which direction I am driving. If I am trying to make it up the hill, I need a little more speed. If I am going down the hill, I am hoping that the breaks do their job.
Translation to the Digital World
In the digital age, the difference between information and knowledge is important and it is going to become even more important. This is in no way an academic debate that I am trying to jump into, 20 years late. Many people, smarter than me, have given this discussion much more thought. What I am trying to suggest is that context is a critical piece of information, and without context all you are giving back is data, information at best. In order to present knowledge, information, data, insights and experience need to be in a continuous loop. This is especially true in the digital age of rapid communications. Teams need to think through as many scenarios as possible and make sure the context is carefully considered.
Looking at a Tweet, a Post, a Blog, a Picture or a Status is only one bit of information, usually in isolation and not enough. Some would say it is only one bit of data not even information. The capability to respond, engage or communicate on social channels requires access to information (what is the right answer), but beyond that is ‘How’. It requires experience, insights and, yes, context. What has not changed is that answers, right or wrong, travel far and wide. Context is the idea that the information shared is relevant, in both time and situation to meet the needs of the person asking. In the scenario above, telling me that the car is certainly capable of 140 miles per hour is not an incorrect statement, but it does lack relevance.
The call to action is to make sure that your people, processes and technology are up to the task.
Clearly guided by a few musical mashups that I have been listening to recently, I wondered if it would be possible to create a mashup blog post. Thinking out-loud here, this could just be one long, run-on sentence that will make little sense in the end. It might be fun, or a bit of a waste of time. I suppose, you will be the judge of that – after all, the experience is yours to have, not mine to give. What it does for me is illustrate that as much as we would like to believe that things are getting simpler due to technology, they are in fact getting much more complex.
What was old is new again and the Internet of things is leading the charge in 2013. Everything is connected including people. Pretty soon a Facebook post by my wife, complaining about the cold weather, will turn up the thermostat in my house. Of course, if we move this the collaborative enterprise, then analytics and bigdata would need to be involved, and the temperature the office would need to be decision set by voting through streaming software, such as Yammer, Chatter, Connections or Jive. If we are talking about the temperature of the store, say Walmart or BestBuy, then of course, the voice of the customer would need to be integrated with the personal preference, the collaboration software as well as the input from Lithium, GetSatisfaction or Telligent. Thank you to Nest for making all of this possible, though I am not sure this is what they had in mind.
While we are on the subject of collaboration, it seems that email has nine lives and that the death of email has been a bit premature and/or greatly exaggerated. The amazing thing here is that the moment a new email thread is created with more than one person on the ‘To’ or ‘Cc’ line (no ‘Bcc’ here, please) then you have created an ad hoc collaboration event, which we have all been doing for years, little did we know (what is old is new again!). Another fun form of an adhoc collaborative event is the #hashtag. Now, these are not always ‘ad-hoc’ as TV and the movies are trying to push some out there, but during sporting events some do spontaneously pop-up, which are fun.
Now, if I want to make a conversation public, then I can share some of the thoughts Facebook, Twitter, or Google+ (where I can Like, RT or +1, respectively). If I decide to create more visually based sharing, then the sharing would need to be more along the lines of Instagram, Flickr or Multiply and if I am really adventurous then maybe even YouTube. I am not only thinking about the workplace, we are collaborating at home as well, think about music and movies, YouTube, NetFlix, Hulu, Pandora, Spotify; each an entertainment play, with stickiness coming in the form of, yep, social sharing, community or whatever your favorite name might be. Myspace fits in here somewhere, making a comeback of its own, though I am not so sure we will see a lot of Napster nor Friendster.
I do need better filters (sorry, not photo filters), so that I do not suffer from information overload. This filter will of course be cloud based, as a hybrid solution will not work, nor will a complete on-premise solution. As my information needs grow, the elasticity of the cloud will make sure that everything is just fine and all of the information will be seamlessly stored in either Box, DropBox, SkyDrive or a Google Drive. Once all the information is stored and I decide I want to write a crazy blog post (yeah, sorta like this one) I will be thankful that Evernote is close at hand, then I can transfer my thoughts from there to WordPress, Posterous, Blogger or Tumblr where I will link to from Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and schedule all of this through Buffer – did I leave anything out? Yes, if I want to comment, Disqus is an important part, I suppose. funny that I have made it to this point without even a mention of the most popular protocols of all, Skype, Chat, IM and SMS. Where do they fit into the conversation?
Something I forgot is that I need something to create my word cloud for all of the topics that I hit in 2012, otherwise, my infographic will not look very professional! Going back to email, I need something to organize my inbox; you know, the 3 Gmail accounts, the 2Yahoo accounts, Live, Hotmail and the AOL account I will never admit in public that exists. The question is, in 2013 is it going to get better, or worse? Are we going to invent more terms, more niche platforms, more things to remember – yeah, probably, but it will be fun, right? Finally, we will be doing all of this, on a daily basis from at least 4 devices each, with form factors from 3×3 to 48×72 and operating systems including, but not limited to Android, iOS, Win8 and a few others, as well.
Excuse me, I need to run, the phone is ringing!
Without a doubt, I am a fan of Albert Einstein. Beyond his scientific genius, his logic based approach and his stylish hair, he had a way with words.
“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage — to move in the opposite direction.”
If you take out the ‘violence’ bit, what is left is that reducing complexity to simplicity is…well, not so simple. As I look around the technology landscape, the obvious examples of this jump out, Apple is the poster child, but that is too easy. Let’s consider your customers:
- What are you doing to simplify the lives (work or personal) of your customers?
- Do you have a good grasp on what they want? Need? (There is a difference).
Do One Thing Really Well
An example most people can easily relate to is ‘storing stuff’. Here is the physical metaphor; As a traveler, I am looking forward to the day that when I open up my closet in my hotel room, there are my clothes for the day, exactly as they appear in my closet at home. I did not pack a suitcase, I did not drag a roller-thingy across 1000 yards from Terminal F to Terminal C at Chicago’s O’Hare.
The technology example is the storage and retrieval of my work files. Fair to say that a 8GB USB key would probably do the job, but that has become a pain. Why? Well, I work on a desktop, laptop and iPad – only 2 of 3 actually have a USB port. You could also say this is a problem of my own creation (yes, but hold that thought). A few companies have started to address this problem (Apple is, again, one). Many are doing this one thing really really well. Where companies get into trouble is trying to do too much – a place they will struggle to hide the complexity.
“Excellence is the sum of 100 or 1,000 of <these> little details.” Drew Houston, DropBox
Do you Hide Complexity?
Providing a great experience (user or otherwise) is really hard, there is no doubt. The secret sauce of your offering, whatever it is, it is what you need to do better than anyone and provide great value. In general, there are at least two parts of a great experience. The remembered experience, you know the part we love, brag about (Facebook share) and thoroughly enjoy; think 2 feet of fresh powder on the slopes. Then there are parts which enabled that great experience but are meant to be forgotten; think parking lot shuttle or the high-speed chairlift.
The technological version is that when I am actively using an application, buttons, and user interface are important. I want fewer mouse clicks (or none), I want simplicity, when possible, but control of my own experience, when I want it. How about the other bits, the hard things; integrated spell check, auto-save, notifications, etc.,… In theory, gone are the days that I need to worry about these things, right? But, it took a long time to hide this complexity and we all complained pretty loudly when our file was lost, or an important document went to press with a spelling error. I only remember those things, when they don’t work.
Positive experiences are as much about the stuff that is memorable, as the stuff that is not. If I remember the ski-lift it is because it was a long line, a cold ride or it broke.
The relationship among complexity, simplicity and transparency is an interesting dynamic. Is it important to know the mechanics of the ‘detachable’ part of the chair or the size of the counterweight, on the ski lift? How many of you have asked to see the elevator certification (which is in the management office)? Do your users really want to know the actual protocol used to read and write data to and from your Dropbox files locally and how they are synchronized to the network? (Maybe)
Within the organizations you are doing business with, some people will want all the details and some really do not care. What most people really do care about is the following:
- You know the details,
- You are willing to share them if asked; Transparency
- For whatever you sell, it does what it says it does.
Finally, Is it Simple to Use, Simple to Understand and Simple to Explain?
I believe more people would prefer to think about the ride down in 2 feet of fresh powder, but that is just me.
This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet.