Information isn’t power

On my way to work I often end up on the phone with an old friend. I keep threatening to podcast the conversations because they’re often pretty insightful, even if I do say so myself. To make up for it, they’re sometimes just drivel.

But back to the insight.

Today we came to a great conclusion:

Information isn’t power. It’s fuel.

To put it another way, information doesn’t do great things, it enables great things. In order to get the great things out of it, you have to act on it, which means it must have some value to drive action. It must be actionable.

But many folks have this backward. They think the action part is mostly supposed to be about gathering the information, and that once gathered it will somehow produce benefit by its mere existence.

Are you doing this? Are you collecting status reports from your people, filing them away, distributing them to people all in the hopes that by some sort of motive osmosis power will be extracted from them? It may be that those reports contain a lot of information, but it’s not actionable information because it’s not needed.

The best way to differentiate real buyers from tire kickers was to ask about the details of their need. When do they need the product? When do they want it delivered? Why do they need it? If there’s detail in the answers, then you have a real buyer. If not, then you have a tire kicker. They may be interested in buying someday but they don’t have the real need yet. It’s the same with information. If you need it, you know what you need because you have questions to be answered.

If information is fuel, strategy is the engine.

If you have lots of information lying around and don’t know what to do with it, it’s probably a symptom that you lack a focused need. Strategy is what guides the business and ultimately creates that need. Strategy is executed through tactics, which require planning, which in turn requires information.

Symptoms of the lack of strategy:

  1. You’re drowning in reports and other information, but you can’t seem to get value out of it. The need isn’t there, so the information isn’t actionable, and no action is taken from it.
  2. Major decisions are made (not thought about, not discussed, but actually made) as a reaction to outside forces. A customer demands new technology, cancels an order, or switches to a competitor and someone snaps and a decision gets made. The world is fluid and reacting to it is often a large part of business, but it shouldn’t drive the business.
  3. Discussions about “What business are we really in, and where are we headed?” and similar subjects erupt unexpectedly during meetings, and delay activity. The key here is that they delay whatever was about to take place. If there’s no delay, then the eruptions are more likely caused by a lack of communication on the strategy rather than the lack of strategy itself.

Do you have an engine to burn your fuel?

On the state of computer & internet skills in business today

Have you read the 2006 State of the Industry report from NAPL? In the chapter on client relationships, they report on some responses the survey participants gave on how contact with clients is changing. The first was that client contact was becoming:

â??More electronic, less face-to-face, less personal.â??

Sounds true enough, and probably true for every industry. But the response right after it is what made me chuckle:

â??Need to see clients more often to counter effects of electronic communication.â??

More often than what? More often than when communication was less electronic, more face to face and more personal? â??â?¦counter effectsâ?¦?â?? Is electronic communication poisonous?

I think this response is indicative of a very real problem in business today â?? the technology gap. There are still a lot of folks out there who see the Internet and associated technologies as alien and evil. Theyâ??re fighting them.

In the past no one was expected to understand computers or the Internet. Neither existed, or at best only experts were involved. In the past 20 years both have gone mainstream, and I think everyone would agree that 20 years from now everyone will be as well-versed in using both as using a telephone or driving car. Itâ??s neither the past nor the future thatâ??s the problem. Itâ??s the present, and the shift from a workforce thatâ??s not techno-savvy to one that is of concern.

As each companyâ??s workforce ages the non-savvy folks will retire and be replaced by folks who are savvier. Yes, I know there are plenty of older folks who are very savvy â?? my 75 year-old father is one of them â?? but as a generality older folks tend to be less adept with technology. The problem is that in any given industry, some companies will make this transition faster than others. We all invest in technology because of the tremendous competitive advantage it provides, and the technological literacy of the workforce is probably the strongest aspect of this phenomenon.

Put another way, companies with technologically literate workforces will have a competitive advantage over those who donâ??t.

We all know that. But what I donâ??t think most people are considering is that technological literacy as a competitive advantage is itself changing. It used to be that literacy meant that Bob or Jane could perform the work related tasks they needed to without having to bother IT. That is, the work that the company had established as standard operating procedure. Anything beyond that, like creating a new report or template or database was ITâ??s job. However, as we all know, being successful means improving at an ever increasing rate and that means moving the source of innovation and improvement closer and closer to people who will benefit. That means people have to invent for themselves. We may expect our IT departments to being doing this innovation, but increasingly they are tasked with reducing costs and keeping users under control â?? which kills innovation at both ends.

It also means being at home with email, instant messaging, and other forms of modern communication. Millions of teenagers form personal (in some cases very personal) relationships using little more than text messaging on cell phones, so itâ??s not impossible.

Being functionally competent with computers is a whole different story than being comfortable enough to innovate new ways of using them. Yet most training programs are aimed at getting users to follow specific procedures to do specific tasks â?? add a network printer, or create a spreadsheet for example. They arenâ??t focused on general knowledge to enable users to find and create their own solutions or absorb the exploding array of new stuff on the web.

Computer literacy is also usually seen as a lower-level skill. How many upper management people do you know who pride themselves on being able to query a database or write their own macros?

In order to solve these problems companies need to do several things. They need to move more responsibility to the employee for IT tasks, to drive increased competence at that level. They need to change their culture to include technological innovation in oneâ??s work among the things to be rewarded. They need to work as hard to educate people on technology as they do on more business oriented subjects.

All other things being equal, those companies who close the technology gap faster are going to have greater success than those who donâ??t. What will your company do?

New online forum –

While I was at the SCIP conference I was able to meet several folks from Strategy Software, who make several products I use. We talked about their products and their features, and we also ended up talking about creating a user’s group.

There were a few of us “power users” there, and everyone seemed to think it was a good idea. It was one of those discussions where everyone’s nodding, but no one is talking about what they’re going to do, so I volunteered to put it together.

So on the way home in the airport I found a spot with free wi-fi and set to work. One of the things I really love about the internet is how quickly things can be done. In less than an hour I had found software (PHPBB) and had uploaded it to my web servers, defined the forums, thought up a name (poorly chosen and later changed), written posts, and emailed the others about it.

That was Friday, and Saturday I registered a domain, cleaned up the site, set up security on the Strategy Software forums (they’re for licensees only) and wrote more posts. Since then the domain as changed to The folks from Strategy Software have been participating, and now we have 48 articles and 10 users.

But that’s not enough!

So, please come and have a look when you can! is a place where CI professionals and others involved in research or information security can network and discuss issues that are important to them, as well as their experience with Strategy Software products. It’s still in it’s infancy, so now’s the time to get in on the ground floor!

Golf rots your brain redux

A while back I wrote a post titled Golf rots your brain. The idea was that as fine a game as golf is, it’s not a strategic game and therefore it doesn’t build the ability to think strategically. I was thinking about this today, and it occurred to me that if golf isn’t a good game to play to improve one’s thinking, what would be?

In order to answer that question, let’s look at some valuable strategic concepts:

  • Changing circumstances. This has chess written all over it, but poker, many board games (i.e. Risk) and others are good as well. The main requirement here is that unlike golf, your actions must change the game for the other person and force them to reconsider their actions. Many folks in business are addicted to the “plan the work, work the plan” theory, and have a hard time adjusting when the game changes.
  • Sunk costs and abandoning worthless efforts. Poker is king here. Nothing teaches the concept of sunk costs or when to abandon a worthless effort like realizing you have a crappy hand before the draw. Folks who play often soon learn not to pay to see themselves lose. Of course, you really have to play for money in order for poker to have any bite.
  • Focus on the achievable. If you’ve ever played Risk and started out with armies all over the map you learned you had to abandon some of the poor fellows in order to succeed overall. Even though world domination is the goal, and armies located all over the world would seem to be an advantage, you have to focus on achievable intermediate steps to win in the end. Golf tends to promote bad behavior here – how many times have you tried to carry the water or trees, even though you really didn’t think you could make it? In golf it’s only a stroke or two, if you’re being strict.
  • Personal objectivity. Poker is really good for this, along with blackjack. If one plays according to the odds, and makes decisions strictly by the odds, it actually possible to beat the house on some video poker machines. The problem is that we inevitably use our gut, for good or ill, and ignore the evidence. I find poker to be a game that seduces me in this way more than any other. There’s just something about cards that gets me thinking about luck and how I’m “due” for a win. Again, money has to be involved for the lesson to sink in.
  • Plan execution/multiple steps. Risk and other board games are good here, along with chess. The idea is that to complete the plan many small steps are required, versus poker where there are usually only 3 or 4. There are lots of folks who just won’t settle for a solution that requires more than a few steps to complete. The problem is that life doesn’t always hand us 3 or 4 step problems, but the inability to think past this will close off many possibilities. This is another area where golf is particularly bad – par 5 maximum tends to create short-sighted thinking.

Now, I know that none of these games have quite the executive allure that golf does, but all are just as good for getting to know your coworkers and building camaraderie. If you need to start building a greater ability to think strategically in your people, consider skipping the links occasionally and trying something else.

Goals are evil

Ok, Goals aren’t actually evil, but they do have the potential to be.

It’ s the time of year when people are making plans for the coming year. Old approaches are being evaluated, and new solutions are being formed. Goals are glue that holds everything together. Goals make the future seem static and a bit less uncertain. They pander to the human need for consistency and steadiness. They also tell people what to do, and provide structure for the work everyone does.

With no goals there is no measurement and no easy way to evaluate progress.

But, goals are like fireplaces. They add a dimension to life that nothing else does. A unique value that’s mostly worth the trouble. However, if you put a fireplace in every room, on every wall, you end up with far more heat than you wanted, a house full of smoke, and everyone running around looking for firewood.

So, as you set forth to plan for the coming year and begin developing goals and subgoals supporting those goals, etc, try this test: For each subgoal, ask yourself if there is any way that the subgoal can be achieved in a way that brings no benefit to the company or the higher level goals. If the answer is yes, ask yourself whether you really need a goal, or a guideline.

Yes, you do have a strategy

Part of my job is dealing with strategy. Evaluating it, proposing it, and developing it. It’s the part of my job I like the most, and I think it’s something that is extremely important to any business.

What strikes me is how many folks I hear from who say things like “Strategy? We don’t have one”, “Nah, we didn’t worry about strategy, we worried about the customer,” or my favorite, “Our strategy is to make money.” I think these folks are misunderstanding something.

A strategy is often thought of as some incredibly well thought out and very complex plan, accounting for every contingency, and showing a step-by-step course of action. Like those big blueprints you saw in the old Wile E. Coyote cartoons, with a big dotted line tracing the path of the Acme rocket, or like a military strategy drawn on a map with arrows sweeping through the hinterland and little tanks and airplanes. We all want to believe that a strategy is a “master plan” type of thing. Unfortunately, that viewpoint is what makes people utter the nonsense I mentioned earlier.

A Strategy isn’t something you refer to or work with every day. It’s not a master plan with lots of detail for every step. It’s usually not a large blueprint drawing, although it might be if you’re in the roadrunner-catching business and Acme is a prominent supplier.

A Strategy is what guides and has guided the fundamental decisions and actions of the endeavor. Something does, and whatever it is it’s defining the strategy you’re using. The strategy you have may be incoherent, inconsistent, or impossible to articulate but it’s there. It may be invisible to you, but you can be sure those on the outside, like your competitors, can determine it by analyzing your past behavior. Chances are it’s simpler than you think. The question is whether it’s what you need it to be.