Two of the hardest things in the information management space are figuring out how to think about the value of information, and how to make information more productive. One key to sorting out this riddle, in my mind, is to get a structured view of what constitutes 'work' for information, and how to know when you have enough work potential to get done whatever task you've set out for yourself. In past posts I've brought up the idea of the 'iJoule' -- a unit to measure energy or work potential of a unit of information. The iJoule concept is based on the 'Joule' which, roughly, is a measurement of the amount of work it takes (and therefore energy required) to move one kilogram of mass one meter. Since moving a one-kilogram mass one meter is a simple but clear example of work, the the joule is a pretty basic concept to master. But how does this concept apply to the iJoule? And how do you figure out how many iJoules it takes to do information-based work?
It's a big mystery, and to solve it, I'll call upon Lieutenant Colombo-- he of the famed and eponymous detective series. What Colombo did was truly information work-- he collected units of information about an event (usually a murder), and somehow piece them together to create an accurate model of what had occurred-- so the killer could be apprehended.
The work at hand for Colombo was typically identifying the killer, who was usually a very clever individual able to cover his/her tracks and who had typically committed the crime in a very creative (and hard-to-decipher) manner. Colombo stumbled and bumbled his way around in order to be under-estimated by his brilliant but egotistical antagonist, collecting seemingly disparate units of information. Each new unit of information was, in his brilliant mind, connected with each other unit, building greater and greater context, until he reached his moment of epiphany, and the crime was solved.
So how many iJoules did it it take for Colombo to do his work- to cover the distance from 'no idea who committed the crime' to 'case closed'? Without putting a number on that question yet, let's delve into the physics of this a bit more. When we do that, I think we see that the 'work' done to move that one kilogram mass one meter, and the work done to solve the murder, are not all that different. And seeing that connection may get us a little closer to calculating the work potential for a unit of information.
Let's go back to the one-kilogram block for a minute. Let's suppose a random ant were to march up to that block and push as hard as it could. Would the block move at all? No. The valiant ant would be exerting force, and using energy, but not nearly enough to do any real work-- the block doesn't move any closer to the finish line (does that remind you of large parts of your working day..?). Now as more and more ants join their comrade in the push, eventually there's enough force applied to for work to occur- for the block to actually begin to move. Eventually, enough ants are in the fray, and pushing long enough, to move that block one meter and presto! They reach the one Joule mark and their job is done...
Colombo's task is the same. Early on in each episode, he's collecting seemingly random units of information. At the beginning stages, there are not enough units of information-- or perhaps not enough context-- to move him any closer to identifying the killer. He is expending energy in his own shuffling way, but not 'moving the block' at all. But then he hits a threshold; he accumulates enough units of information, all connected to each other in the pattern recognition system of his brain, to start to create a theory... he get a 'hunch'-- and the block starts to move. But he does not yet have enough iJoules to get to the finish line-- if he stops accumulating information-- or creating new contexts and connections-- he will not complete the task. However, as we know (at least those of us over 40) Colombo is relentless-- he continued to accumulate units of information, place them in his ever-richer context, and eventually he crosses the finish line, closes the case and lights his victory cigar.
Now the number of iJoules required for Colombo to be succesful may have been in the thousands or perhaps millions; many units of information, each adding exponentially to the amount of informational energy applied to the problem. But it seems to me that if we can carry the logic this far (assuming you are still buying the idea) then we ought to be able to carry it a bit further, and put some real math around these concepts. Imagine if Colombo knew as soon as he walked onto the crime scene how many iJoules would be needed to solve the case, and how quickly he could accumulate the units of information and create all the possible contexts? And imagine if we could do that for the myriad of other kinds of information problem solving we do every day? How many iJoules does it take to invent a drug? To solve a customer support question? To figure out the best target audience for a new flavor of Soda? I don't know-- but I think we could figure it out.
But even without the actual number, this thought process (at least to me) teaches us something important about information and work. Just like energy comes in discrete 'packages' that are assembled to create heat and do work, information is accumulated in discrete 'packages' that can be assembled to do work. And like energy, information works in step functions-- one more unit can let us cross the threshold from 'no invention' to 'invention' just like one more unit of energy can get the pot of water from liquid to gas. And with the exponential power of information (remember the information network effect: the value of information grows exponentially with every other unit of information to which it can be connected) adding one unit of information to what you have today-- as long as you have the means to try it out in every available context-- offers massive additional opportunity for insight, invention and every other type of imaginable work. All that limits the work potential for a unit of information is a limit to how many other units of information to which it can be applied to create new contexts.
And what Detective Colombo understood was that every unit of information --no matter how irrelevant it seemed on the surface-- was precious. He collected every unit, and searched for every context, never sure if the scratch on a bottle of whiskey, or the books on the floor next to the record player, would be the unit of information that, when added to the context engine of his mind, would break the case.
Thinking this way, to me, will be the next revolution in information management. The managers of information will transform themselves and their IT environments from repositories of data to facilitators of context. They will learn to trust in the exponential power of information, applied to ever-richer and more varied contexts, to deliver unimaginable insights and value for their organizations and their customers. They will find ways to break down the barriers that keep information from connecting and that today, keep the Detective Colombo in each of us from solving every mystery and defeating every villain that confronts us in work, society, education and across the entire landscape of human endeavor.
And when that occurs, we can all smoke a victory cigar.