When it comes to thinking about the value of information, and trying to understand the nature of the work it does, it seems to me there's no better laboratory than our US presidential election process. After all, an election process is really nothing more than an extended exchange of information, across millions of people and months of time, all leading up to a single decision.
In fact, some estimates place the total amount of money that will be spend on this election cycle at around $3 billion. This isn't just direct spend by candidates, but includes special interest groups, the parties themselves, and other folks with a vested interest in the outcome.
So let's play it out. $3 billion spend in large part on media or communications of various forms, ranging from TV spots to print ads to speech writing, videos, position papers and who knows what else. And add to that the communications that don't have a direct price tag, such as blogs, supporter-generated videos and the like and the scale of communication (aka information transfer) is enormous. According to Jack Myers Media Business Report, Barack Obama has nearly 900,000 Facebook friends alone. That's a truly massive amount of communication potential.
It's also interesting to consider what sort of information is actually being shared by this massive investment in time and money. You'd think it must be a lot of information, wouldn't you? But in an objective sense, it's very little. Information specific to the candidate's views, voting records, funding sources and promises represents only a tiny fraction of the election effort. That information could be (and is) contained on a few key websites and news sources. Most of the effort and money spent around elections is about creating context-- trying to shape the context in which people will view that small set of facts, and thus influence which lever they'll pull in November. It might only take a paragraph to describe Obama's or McCain's voting record on tax increases. But I am sure that millions of dollars have been-- and will be-- spent in TV ads, radio spots, PR campaigns and other efforts to convince us all what the implications of their voting records will be for the future of the country. One paragraph of facts, and the equivalent of a thousand paragraphs of opinion, all trying to help construct the context in which we will each view that fact.
In a sense, what the election process is about is that creation of context-- determining the overall context (context in this case meaning the political and ideological landscape) in which a million decisions will be made over the next four years.
And maybe that gives us a clue on how think about this massive investment in terms of work performed. After all, in the classic definition of work, this 15 month process and billion of dollars is all designed to help influence which lever an individual pulls, or which bubble they color in on paper ballot. The physical world is not materially different the day after the election than it was the day before. Yet stock markets will go up or down, allies will feel good or worried, and millions of voters will be feel better about their future or worse, all depending on the information communicated by those pulled levers and colored ovals.
So why does it take $3 billion to make this collective decision? Maybe if classic definitions of work revolve around change in the state of something over time, the definition of work in this case can also be some form of change over time. But in this case, its the change of context over time. And just like changing the location of one pound of weight means pushing against forces of gravity, inertia and friction, changing a context in which information is viewed means fighting similar forces. Contexts or opinions, like objects, tend to stay the way they are unless acted upon by some other force. So the context in which we view a candidate for president will stay the same, unless pushed or pulled into a different shape. And that's what the $3 billion is spent to do- to shape the context in which we as voters will view that relatively small set of actual facts about a candidate and their views, to hopefully result is us coloring in the right oval.
If you are thinking about how to bring social media tools into your business, I'd encourage you to spend some time exploring how the candidate are using it in this election cycle. Social media is probably the most powerful transformational tool in politics since television. It's already pervasive in organizing field teams, energizing fund-raising, and coordinating the efforts of thousands of people, in a combination of tops-down and bottom's up innovation and collaboration. In short, it's pretty much everything that most companies are trying to do every day.
As companies become more globally diverse, and individuals gain more autonomy for decisions-making, the idea of meta-contexts will be come pivotal. They exist today, and are called culture, or mission statements, or policies. But more and more, information systems will have to help amplify and shape those meta-contexts. Social media tools will be key to this transformation. The meta-contexts in which decisions are made will be shaped much like the presidential campaigns are; driven top-down by charismatic leaders, and bottoms-up from the ideas and passions of employees, partners and customers.
It's an exciting prospect, and one worth some significant investment.