Three Strategies for Managing the New Information Paradigm

By William Mottolese

In David Foster Wallace's novel The Pale King, an inspirational accounting professor tells his students that in earlier generations, people built new things and "generated facts." Today's work environment, he claims, depends on "the ordering and deployment of those facts." He concludes, "The pie has been made – the contest is now in the slicing"

Every day in the office and at home, we confront the challenge of slicing the pie. In 2015, we are not erecting the Hoover Dam or digging the Panama Canal. We are sustaining ourselves amidst waves of words, facts, images, data, messages, and ideas encountered electronically and in print. What do we do with all that material? How do we respond and create an advantage for our business, our associates, our customers and ourselves? How do we turn information into knowledge?

Too Many Choices; Too Big a Pie

In the online age, the conceptual world is vaster than we can imagine. Consequently, in the workplace we must grapple with layers of choices and micro-choices every hour. And many of these choices have concrete implications on our time and communications. How many of these kinds of questions do you ask yourselves daily?
  • Which email or text should I read first?

  • Should I respond to that email or text now or later?

  • What should I write?

  • Should I watch that video attachment?

  • Should I bookmark that article, forward it along to a colleague?  

  • Which article is best?

These questions, moreover, traverse a whole other realm of information available or archived online: blogs, articles, videos, websites, tweets, podcasts, charts, Wikipedia entries and so forth. How we manage our choices in these areas creates distraction, confusion, and stress; and challenges efficiency in the workplace. 

Information Overload

What does the pie we have to slice look like? Paul Marsden on his Digital Intelligence Today blog offers some staggering statistics.

  • 90% of the world's data has been generated only in the last two years.

  • Outside of work, the typical American consumes 34 gigabytes/12 hours per day.

  • In the workplace, office employees spend 28% of their time on emails.

  • The average person processes 35 texts per day.

Zeroing In Requires Discipline

Zeroing in involves transforming information into knowledge, and having the discipline to focus on what's important. It is not an easy skill to teach; and, in part, it comes from years of reading, thinking, and questioning -- i.e. from what you learned while struggling to read Hamlet in school. The ability to zero in effectively can help in two areas of daily personal information overload:

  1. Managing electronic communicative choices (e.g. email, texting, social media, blogging)

  2. Doing basic research and knowledge acquisition online and via web accessible databases

Effectively zeroing in involves understanding our new roles in the new information paradigm, what Daniel Pink calls the "Conceptual Age." To thrive in the 21st century, we must take on three roles:

  1. Curator.  Curate your knowledge. Be aware of what you know, and understand how to find what you don't know. Come up with a system to organize, archive, and access your conceptual world. 

    More important, how do you curate that knowledge to present it to others? Like a museum curator, think about the themes that organize your work and help you prioritize, visualize, and organize it.

  2. Linguist.  Attend to your language. Your ability to search for information and communicate it clearly as knowledge revolves around a keen awareness of language. Google tapped into this fact when it required searches with carefully chosen keywords. Collect, cultivate, and use your key words. 

  3. Designer.  Think critically and creatively. Daniel Pink argues that the MFA is the new MBA. Do you think about your knowledge in terms of narrative – i.e. what stories are you creating with it? Architecture – i.e. what shapes and structures are you building? A designer asks questions, interprets data, collaborates, identifies problems, and constructs creative solutions. The content-heavy PowerPoint presentation alone doesn't cut it anymore, because I can look anything up myself.

Figuring out how to slice up the pie revolves around assessing how you manage information to turn it into knowledge. Handling knowledge effectively means being able to use that knowledge efficiently and furnish it for others. The new workplace requires not just disciplined habits and practices, but also creative and resourceful thinking.

So, zero in on what's important. It will not only help you manage information and stress, but you'll also make more meaningful discoveries.

William Mottolese earned his Ph.D. in language and literature at Fordham University. A scholar of James Joyce and an experienced teacher and facilitator of writing, Dr. Mottolese has taught at Fordham University and Saint Joseph's College in Indiana. He is presently Chair of the Department of English at Convent of the Sacred Heart in Greenwich and teachers at the Center for Fiction in Manhattan.
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