It’s that time again. Time to talk about time. I’ll try to be brief, since there is so little time for a chat. Or for much anything else.
Trying to keep up. Trying to catch up. Failing.
Those struggling to keep pace with changes in telecommunications and its ripple effects throughout our lives are fighting a losing battle. There is just too much happening across too much territory. Specialists talk past each other, and generalists are quickly swamped.
Newspapers bring news of the world to the masses. There’s a whole new service industry devoted to keeping the newspaper industry abreast of what it needs to know about the world. Journalists for journalists.
There are some dangers in this. There are no guarantees that the sources of this information are journalists, or abide by the same standards. For example, one service, Business Wire, sends out news items only to certified journos. But most of the material consists of press releases issued by the companies themselves. Needless to say, they aren’t objective. Anyone who relies on them does so at his or her peril. The line between fact and PR fancy is getting thinner and thinner. Worse, the ever-intensifying news cycle means there is less time to check out which is which. Once misinformation, disinformation or plain old mistakes get in the system, they are pretty tough to get out. Reader, beware.
These desperate efforts to stay on top of things are having a profound effect on how we think about information. The question is epistemological: What do we know? Or, to put it quite simply: Where are we?
The magnitude of this question was brought home in a recent investment-company report. Robert Pelosky, Jr., head of research on global emerging markets for Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, notes that in the past, forecasting was about the future. Today, the challenge is figuring out &lt;i&gt;now.&lt;/i&gt;
Pelosky explains it like this: “An accelerated discounting process leads to a shorter feedback loop. Getting today right is much more important that getting the future right. . . . As MSDW scenario strategist Eric Best said to me over lunch recently, ‘Forecasting is Old Economy.’ “
The phenomenon works both ways. Pelosky also argues that “since today seems to be different from yesterday, the past isn’t as important as it used to be in gaining perspective for investment decisions.”
When someone says history doesn’t matter, I duck. Maybe this is a whole new digital world, but the notion of a year zero makes my skin crawl.
At this point, things get interesting. Figuring out the here and now is especially tough when swimming through a flood of data — some good, some bad — that’s coming from every conceivable direction.
The investment analysts cited above suggest a new paradigm is in order. They recommend collaboration. By drawing on different points of view to interpret data and create strategies, we should be able to “better manage risk and reward on an ongoing basis.” Pelosky calls for “a team of diverse talents focused on their individual slices of the world, leveraging an open architecture database and fostering creative, real-time thinking.”
The same logic drives the analysis in “Best Truth: Intelligence in the Information Age,” by Bruce Berkowitz and Allan Goodman (Yale University Press, 2000). The authors are former employees of the CIA; intelligence in this sense is the spy stuff. They make a powerful case for the same distributed, flexible intelligence- gathering and analysis that Pelosky makes. The key point is that there is so much information out there that closed systems — and the secretive compartmentalization of intelligence services is the archetype — cannot handle it effectively. The key is creating incentives that encourage people to solve problems and ensuring that responsibility is not diluted in the process.
In a not-so-odd coincidence, on my bookshelf “Best Truth” sits next to “The Cathedral and the Bazaar,” by Eric Raymond (O’Reilly Press, 1999). This essay is the Bible for open-source software, and Raymond is the movement’s chief evangelist. Although his argument focuses on software — and he says in the epilogue that he is uncomfortable applying it to other fields at this time — the philosophy/logic is identical to that used by Pelosky, Berkowitz and Goodman.
It seems obvious that we are moving toward entirely new models for processing data and knowledge creation. The chief task for just about anyone in the years ahead is figuring out how to apply such a model to one’s own life, career or business.
Yet I’m not sure how to do this. How does information get to those analysts, and how is it turned into digestible, manageable quantities for clients and customers? It still looks a lot like trying to drink water through a fire hose.
Yet businesses have no choice. They have to be constantly scanning the landscape. At this year’s Davos conference of homo economicus Ubermenschen, execs were complaining about their fear of being blindsided by aliens: some small company that would come from nowhere and blast their stately ships right out of the water.
That’s quite an assignment: 360-degree panoramo-vision, virtual omniscience and an ability to turn information into knowledge, while separating signal from noise.
Oops. Out of time. Gotta run.