How Experts Handle Information Overload

188697388_69e96534cb_o Richard McDermott is a management consultant who specializes in helping organizations develop, retain, and utilize knowledge. He focuses on what people do with knowledge, how it is used to support decision-making, expert judgment calls, and more. Harnessing Your Staff’s Informal Networks is his latest publication in Harvard Business Review, March 2010. His second area of specialty is Retaining Knowledge and Expertise, with two articles on the topic under review and a book in progress.

“Information overload is a real issue,” says Richard. Richard has many strategies, but I will focus on two of them: focus and depth.

Richard focuses his searches. He finds ways to gather only the relevant information. For example, he reads the headlines of journals to see what topics are being published to gain insight into what is happening, what is new. “Many topics are recycled,” he says, so he breezes over them. When he does find something of value, he writes the essence on 5×8 cards. “It’s faster for me to write it on the card while reading and shuffle the cards as their relevance changes than it is to type it into the computer,” says Richard.

As reading is really ‘big’ for Richard, he reads only portions of books rather than the whole. He participates in a few forums but finds them generally not very helpful. He doesn’t Twitter himself, but he reads selectively from Twitter – following only a very few that are of direct relevance and that provide links to substance, for example, David Gurteen’s. More specifically, he gains time by turning off email for specific periods of time. As Richard says, “I create a daily agenda and turn off email until it’s time. Otherwise, I will be spread too thin and will have no depth.”

Depth is important to Richard, because Richard is serious about expertise. I’ve read some of his papers on the subject, but I didn’t realize the depth of his interest until he described to me learning how to ride a horse which he did in his 50’s. As he described the experience, I could see the rigor in which he engaged in the learning. “You don’t ride a horse by pulling and kicking,” says Richard. “You balance and just the slightest movement, an inch shift in your leg, a shift of your weight from one side to the other can be a signal to the horse. You have to learn where every inch of your own body is, as well as, learn how the horse will interpret it.”

Frustrated in a lesson, his instructor told him that in the Spanish riding school, this stage takes 7 years. Richard never stopped his lessons. As I said, Richard is serious about expertise. Depth is important to him “When I see experts making judgment calls in their field, it is the same. They see subtle cues others miss. They know how a set of events are likely to unfold. They know what to watch out for, what things could go wrong. Learning to ride as an adult has been a great way for me to appreciate the incredible subtlety of expert judgment. You can’t capture it in a five step process.” So, when Richard decides to dive deep, he really does.

Richard’s overall strategy is to limit the amount of information he tries to tackle in order to provide the time needed to explore in depth what is important to him. He prefers to give himself time to think expertly as well as be an expert.

Photo by Sourahb Rath