No Man Should Want To Be An Island (Of Information)

Angel IslandJeffry Phillips in his recent posting ‘All men are islands (of information)‘ talks about how in an organisation individuals hoarding information and not contributing their knowledge to collective action become a bigger obstacle when organisations do more work with less people. This means the sphere of influence of individuals in organisations increases. And asks:
What happens when just a few of these knowledge workers hoards information, or simply refuses to share his or her knowledge about an issue or topic?
Other than coercion, how does a firm encourage people to participate in a stream of knowledge and add to that knowledge?
Jeffry names three possible ways of encouragement. Take away reasons for hoarding (job insecurity among them), reward sharing behaviour, and look at the processes in your organisation. I agree with reservations, as I will explain below.
Jack Vinson adds another thing: that your colleagues will simply start routing around you if you don’t share (routing around damage), if you’re not connected. And that I think is the most important point: it is rapidly becoming counterproductive to be an island of hoarded information.
Owning information becomes irrelevant
Hoarding information can be a source of influence in situations where information is scarce. Look around you. Information isn’t scarce, there is an unending abundance of information. Owning information is becoming irrelevant, having access is very relevant, but rapidly becoming most important is how to filter all that abundance so you can turn it into actions.
Will you be my filter?
FiltersSo Ardath Albee is right to think we need to become better filters. But not for ourselves, but for eachother. I need to become a better filter for you and Ardath, and you for me.
Navigating information abundance in my mind is not about internalising each and every item of info that reaches you. It is about seeing the patterns in all that information. Patterns that work with your objectives, and that work against your objectives. Patterns you want to stimulate, patterns you want to attenuate. Probe, sense, respond in David Snowden’s words.
Filtering: pattern search through social context and feedback
For pattern searching two things are key. First, information can no longer be viewed as objective, but need to be seen as always embedded in subjective social contexts, and second that feedback loops are needed to make patterns emerge from the information abundance.
So for me to be effective in my own information use I need to have a very good social network that forms my filter. This means having a balanced set of relationships with a myriad of people (not: sources) who are willing to share their subjective views with me. They show me what matters to them on a daily basis, and what may warrant a response from me.
So for me to be effective in my own information use I need to share my information. Share traces (my bookmarks, my pictures), share information (blogpostings, e-mails, articles, bookmarks), share relationships (go talk to her, go meet him). Because through this sharing networks of meaning become visible: patterns emerge because what I share becomes part of the inputs of my social filter. It helps my relationships know better what to share with me (helps them become better filters), it helps my relationships to want to share with me, and in turn see me as part of their filter to make sense of the world.
I share therefore I am
Share the road forwardsIf I don’t share, I make myself deaf and blind to the world around me, because I make feedback impossible, and will not be able to make sense of the world I live in. It will mean I have no way of seeing the patterns of meaning in the information that surrounds me, and it will become either all noise or all important with no way to choose. I will succumb to information overload.
Encouraging sharing of information
So returning to Jeffry’s original question on how to encourage people to share more, I’d list the following suggestions:
1) Show that hoarding is not the answer to most reasons for hoarding (such as job insecurity)
2) Show that hoarding only makes some sense when information is scarce, and that that is no longer the case
3) Don’t reward sharing itself, but reward being part of the collective. And show that sharing is what makes you part of the collective.
4) Have a good look at your processes, and build sharing into it as a prerequisite to make them work.
Sharing in my organisation
With regard to the list above, how does sharing work in my own organisation? We are twelve people, all consultants, with no central office. Building organisational structures that ensure we need eachother for everything is a prerequisite for us to make the company a collective, and prevent it from turning into twelve one-man-businesses, twelve islands. Some practical examples.
Sharing BirdsGiving is one of our stated core values. To eachother, to clients, to all relationships. We select people on it that join the company, we reflect on our giving ability in our employee reviews. Clients describe us as a ‘giving organisation’.
We collectively agree on what information we always need to share, and revisit that question regularly. Recently we altered the amount of information we share about our relationships. It now includes for instance some more private phone numbers I have of some people, or alternate e-mail addresses. How do I know it won’t be abused? I don’t, except for the fact that part of the simultaneously agreed upon behaviour is that you never contact one of your colleague’s contacts or use their info, unless you first have talked to that colleague about it. Except for the fact that I know that abusing that info is not only a breach of trust with one colleague, but a breach of trust with ALL my colleagues, a breach of trust with the entire organisation. I know I would simply not get away with it.
At the start of the year personal objectives for that year are combined into, and shaped to fit into, our collective objectives as a company. My end of year bonus depends on how all my colleagues view the way I contributed to achieving those collective objectives and helped my colleagues reach theirs. Things that we collectively think have become important are build into the bonus system, things that we think have become less important are removed from it.
I earn more when I bring in a project for one of my colleagues than when I just land my own projects. Bringing in colleagues for acquisition of projects doesn’t mean I have to share the pie I’d otherwise eat myself, but means that the pie we’ll share simply becomes bigger.
In our organisation we understand giving and sharing as sowing. We won’t reap unless we share.
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Pictures: Angel Island by Terry Chay, Filters by aslakr, Share the Road by MoBikeFed, Sharing Birds by JavaBurst all under a Creative Commons license.

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