Ton Zijlstra has done an eloquent blog Every Signal Starts Out As Noise. He argues, provocatively,
Why do we call information and data coming to us noise? Because we know not all that stuff is useful, we label the unuseful stuff as noise. And because of the tilted signal to noise ratio we perceive, i.e. what little we actually use from what comes at us, we say we suffer from information overload. I say that this is rubbish.
There is no such thing as information overload. It does not exist.
The whole piece is well worth a read. Referring to Dave Snowden’s thinking, Ton argues that in a complex world the priority is not analysis, requiring us to read and know everything, He identifies six rules of thumb, all of which I like.
Look at what you see, not at what you don’t see
You are your own filter, important stuff will bubble to the surface at some point
It’s about the few actions you do take, not all the actions you could have.
Skim, not read, all available info, don’t judge yet
Combine what strikes you at first as possible patterns (barriers and attractors), and examine those more closely
Build upon the patterns, and choose one or two to cultivate and act upon
To me what’s central to dealing with the the symptoms of information overwhelm is to break off from looking to outside knowledge for one’s sense of self. I find it very easy to feel ill-informed in a world of so much information, and find it useful to remind myself that I know enough. Indeed, that I am enough
Ton’s material has prompted me to think again about how marketing needs to think and work quite differently if we accept the paradigm of a complex world, one in which it’s not easy to distinguish the signal from the noise, nor to predict with any certainty the consequences of our actions. One aspect that particularly strikes me is market research, where vast sums are spent in an effort to penetrate deep into the customer mind, as if to find a few key triggers that can turn markets. With this goes the old adman’s holy grail of the “unique consumer insight”. It represents an attachment to analysis as if this will usefully guide future behaviour. So often such “insights” cost a lot of money and turn out either to be either bland or misleading. (I blogged at length on this point here).
Along with this is the delusion that by massive promotional expenditure, you can impact in some predictable way how markets will operate… that somehow a brand is created by the brand manager, based on his/her alleged deep insights into their market. A feature of complexity is that cause-and-effect can only be discerned retrospectively and cannot be used to predict the future. Many an adman will cite questionable case histories, out of context, to justify big expenditure now. Such approaches often blind management to the subtle signals out there in the real world where real brands are created in a myriad of conversations. (Leading me back to Ton and his arguments for the value of blogging as means of participating in those conversations, rather than hypothesising about them.)