How Should You Design An Information System?

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Sunday, 8.14pm

Sheffield, U.K.

We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely. – E. O. Wilson

I’ve been thinking about information recently – how we use it, how we value it and how we need it. And what’s clear is that in a world where there is so much information we still need people who can figure out what to do with it.

There is a chapter in the book Information, Systems and Information Systems by Peter Checkland and Sue Holwell on the information system that won the war. They’re talking about the network of radar stations and observers that fed information into headquarters and controlled the movement of fighters during the Battle of Britain – crucial months that were pivotal in the Second World War.

Wartime focuses the mind and makes it very clear what the purpose of your work is – it’s to defeat the enemy. But in peacetime or in the normal course of business it’s much harder to work out what you’re doing with information. Quite often it’s treated, argue Checkland and Holwell, like just another service – you get stationery from there, electricity from there, and information from over there.

But information is critically different. Making the right or wrong decisions on the basis of the right or wrong information can save or sink your business. It’s not a question of artificial intelligence or real-time data that matters – it’s how you collect data, select from it those items that matter, understand what they say and then do the things that matter. This is not a technical task but a human one.

I want to explore these ideas, perhaps as another book project, but in this post let’s stick to why you might want to develop an information system that works.

Well, the first question you should ask yourself is why you would want information at all. What advantage would you gain from having one in place? As someone who has worked in markets I can tell you that understanding price movements is like seeing a person’s electrocardiogram – those wiggles tell the story of the health of an economy. But the past isn’t what matters, not when it comes to the future. So what would it be worth you knowing if you are making decisions for the long-term. No – you want to know what the future has in store for you.

To do this you don’t need fancy machine learning or complex algorithms. You need good enough technology. Stuff that’s been around for a while and is still useful. The newspaper, for example. I went through a phase a few months ago when I got a daily newspaper for the first time – a real, paper one. And it was illuminating, in a way that your phone or computer cannot match. Curated information on the things that matter to you written by professionals. No wonder they’re going out of business in a world that only values the new.

When you do have information what should you do? Take big bets – reach for the stars? Or do as little as possible – sit on your hands? Take your time?

All things that are hard to do for us – now that we’ve been trained to be frenetically active. But most of the time you’re best off doing less, doing nothing, stopping doing – than you are doing more. Do the minimum – don’t ask people to track everything, ask them to monitor what matters and just that. And you might be surprised at how those things improve.

Now, if you look around, you’ll find examples of these ideas in use everywhere. It’s the kind of thing Warren Buffett says about investing – and the sort of ideas you find in lean manufacturing. These ideas work and they’re simple to say – but really quite hard to do. And that’s because you have to put your trust in people to do the right thing – something that we are less and less willing to do.

But if that’s the case is there a space for organisations that can do this well – that can develop information systems that are built for the needs of people rather than self-contained technical marvels? Is it worth thinking through what that might look like?

Let’s look at a couple of principles in the next post.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

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