Information is like water

Oscar Berg

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Keywords: information management

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Information needs to flow like water. As knowledge workers, we need ubiquitous and instant access to information. We need to be able to access the information we need from anywhere, at any time. That’s why the days of the enterprise portals are over; we need multiple access points to access the information and there’s no way one application can fit all the situations where we access to information. 

To have relevant information pulled to us is becoming increasingly important. The opposite, information push, means that someone else tries to figure out in advance what information you might need, in what format you need it, and when you need it. In an ideal world, the person who does that knows exactly what information is right for you in every situation and serves you just that information. It's like you would be automatically served a glass of cold water when you feel thirsty and a glass of cold water happen to be just what you need to quench your thirst. In reality, chances are that you might be served water from a fire-hose when you just need a sip, or that you'll get a bottle of water when what you really need is to take a shower.

When our information needs are very varying, context-dependent and hard to anticipate, information push does not work very well. Instead, you want to be able to decide for yourself. You want to be able to turn on the tap when you're feeling thirsty and immediately get some fresh water to drink. Also, you don't want to spend a lot of time and energy searching for it unless you really need to - you want to automatically attract the information you need when you need it. You want to have everything you need at your fingertips. When you are out running, wouldn't it be great if you could just reach out for a bottle of water that someone hands you just when you're feeling thirsty? 

As knowledge workers, we need to be able to access the information we need right there and then, and preferably have it pulled to us. We should not have to go to the water well with a bucket every time we need some water. That's why the applications we use to access information need to be tailored for typical situations, just as we can get water from a tap by the sink in the kitchen to drink, cook or wash the dishes with, from a bottle when we're mobile and have no other way to access drinking water in a quick and convenient way, or from a garden hose when we need to water the plants and flowers in our gardens. The point is that our needs differ from time to time, from situation to situation. One application does not fit all these situations.
 
Sometimes we obtain information indirectly via content such as documents or web pages. Sometimes we obtain it directly through our interactions with other people. The reality is that most information still resides in people's heads and has not been captured like water in a bottle, often because it can't. In addition, the water that we've captured in the bottle easily looses its freshness. So we need to find new ways of capturing the information and keeping it fresh (wikis instead of documents, micro-blogging instead of e-mail...).
 
When the only thing we can be sure of is that the person who can access and make proper use of the right information most quickly will thrive, it becomes obvious that we can't rely on the information which has been captured in content such as documents and web pages alone. We need instant access to other people and the knowledge and information they possess. We also need it to be pulled to us. That's where social software and Enterprise 2.0 has a key part to play for Information Management. 
 
 
If you're interested, you can find more about the water analogy in this and this presentation on Slideshare. In the post “Information is like water - essential to our survival” I've also used the water analogy to illustrate the purpose of different disciplines dealing with information within enterprises, such as Master Data Management, SOA, Information Management, Enterprise Architecture.  
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Comments

Daniel O'Leary

The people factor is so important when it comes to KM and E2.0 - end users have to be on board with the project, and receive proper training. If not, it can feel like you wrapped your mouth around a fire hose. The most important thing vendors and consultants can do is to plan for the user experience, since technology is only as valuable as the people that use it. Great post Oscar.
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Bert Sandie

Great article Oscar. As knowledge workers one of the critical tools that most medium to large companies are under invested in is their enterprise search solution. To enable knowledge workers to be highly effective, they need to find relevant resources (people, docs, videos, etc.) quickly - invest in search and make it visible from all tools with usability in mind!
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