Less is More, More is Less

John Naish, talking at the opening of 2gether08 used the term infobesity to sum up what he was saying about our addictive need to ‘consume’ more and more information. In the work session I ran, Leon Benjamin described organisational dependency on hierarchy as being as difficult to get rid of as a heroin addiction. We all know at least one person who’s lost to their crackberry (and not because of the tech).

It’s an interesting metaphor – and a difficult one to use as it quickly slips into Salem territory – denial can be seen as proof of guilt. John has some neuroscientific evidence for those who demand to see physical, chemical “causes” of a phenomenon regardless of overwhelming empirical evidence of behaviours. I see people struggling with information and believing that having more will solve the problem even in the face of repeated proof of the contrary – if only we knew more… if we only had more facts… if only we could measure…

So yeah, less is more, more is less – simple wisdom which, like most simple wisdom, may take a lifetime of practice to fully assimilate.

I first saw this as an Information Manager at the Audit Commission. Part of my job was to design systems to put together all of the known facts and data about each council’s social services department in a form that would be useful to our team of people reviewing the council’s performance.

These people doing the reviewing were not statto’s, not analysts, mostly they were social workers who’d risen through the ranks to some prominence and had years of experience of how social services get delivered and managed. Only one or two had any background in a numerical discipline. Most confessed (some proudly) that it was all greek to them. And yet their lust for more and more data, cut this way or that, dressed up in all the finery that Excel can bestow, was literally insatiable. They could not get enough. My team and I could not give them enough. Reviewers still felt uncomfortable about presenting their ideas (remember, based on 20 years of professional practice) in case someone could prove them wrong.

I had to learn the discipline of saying no, of explaining that the “facts” were only signposts and that more signposts might make you feel secure but of themselves they do little to assure you of arrival at your destination.

Photo by TeddyBare on Flickr cc by-nc

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3 thoughts on “Less is More, More is Less”

  1. There are parallels with the current rush to publish healthcare statistics in order to enable patient choice. The overriding assumption is that the consumer of this data – in this case, a patient needing hospital treatment – is able to make use of the data they’re presented with in some meaningful way in order to influence the outcome of the often scary course of consultations and perhaps surgical procedures they’re about to embark on. Which I suspect is unlikely in many cases.

    Disclaimer: The NHS Choices website (www.nhs.uk) pays my bills, but I do plumbing, not content.

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