Keeping Up…What’s Your Strategy?

I’m going to take a wild guess that pretty much everyone who visits this blog makes his or her living through the acquisition, creation, manipulation and/or delivery of information. In other words, few of us actually make stuff – cars, houses, food, etc. – as our primary means of earning a living. If I’m wrong on this point, let’s hear from the SRC chorus to set the record straight.

Call us infoworkers, knowledge workers, members of the service industry, whatever…our productive value (as opposed to our consumptive value) in the economy is a function of what we know, what we think and what we can predict. That means knowing what’s going on – in our area of specialty, inside a patient’s heart, in the broader sweep of culture or a client’s business; creating information – in the form of a legal brief or a press release, a diagnosis, a prediction about the next trend among Japanese school girls, an analysis of yesterday’s primaries, and; delivering information – a memo to a client, a staff meeting, a posting to a blog.
For me, the biggest challenge of what we do is the first one…keeping up with what’s going on. To do my job well, I think I need to be at least passingly familiar – and current – with the large sweep of current affairs, pop culture, business, the economy and politics. I also think it’s important to be more-than-passingly familiar what happening in a range of specific industries and areas – the media, public relations, advertising, technology, communications to name a few – that are important to my ability to do my job, to be innovative and useful to my clients. And, of course, it’s vital that I’m substantially familiar with my clients and their industry.

The problem is that it’s never been harder to keep up with what’s going on than today. The benefits of the internet (and before it the rise of mass media and other communications technologies) in terms of making it easier than ever to access information nearly instantly from anywhere have been more than offset by the incredible explosion in the creation of information. Consider the following:

  • According to a Netcraft survey from February, there more than 158,000,000 servers (loosely “web sites”) in the world. That’s not counting the ones behind firewalls and other electronic barriers. Some 2.6 million new sites were created in February alone, better than 10 new ones per second.
  • Google stopped reporting the number of web pages it indexes in 2004 when it counted more than 8,000,000,000 pages. Yahoo stopped reporting its comparable number in 2005 when it claimed more than 19,000,000,000 pages indexed. Current estimates range as high as 29,000,000,000 pages and that’s not counting the ones created “on the fly” in response to data queries.
  • There are 112,000,000 blogs or so in the world according to Wikipedia.
  • RR Bowker, the company that owns the ISBN (International Standard Book Numbers) system, estimates that between 245,000 and 300,000 new books were published in each of the years 2002-2006, (2002 – 247,777, 2003 – 266,322, 2004 – 295,523, 2005 – 282,500, 2006 – 291,922).
  • The Magazine Publishers of America counted more than 19,000 publications by their members in 2006.
  • There are about 75,000,000 videos on YouTube, a number growing at better than 65,000 a day.

News channels? I get at least a dozen on my TV, most 24/7, and that’s in addition to the hundreds of other channels offering every interest and lifestyle imaginable. Ditto radio. I can beam into my car, my home, my head, more than 100 channels of news and entertainment. Newspapers? Pretty much every newspaper I can think of is available on-line – for free. E-mails? As I noted in a previous posting, we’re currently receiving about 180 billion e-mails every day.

In the face of all this, there’s are really three choices:

  • Give up and let the tide take you where it will, one minute Britney, the next second Darfur, the next nanosecond Hillary, the next picosecond Idol/Survivor/Biggest Loser/Real Housewives/Big Give;
  • Give up and block it all out, unplug and look for land in the mountains;
  • Set up some filters and some trusted content providers that get you what you need and hold back the rest.

Option #3 is where I suspect most of us live, whether we moved there consciously or not. Here’s my coping strategy, divided into “Real-Time,” “Trend Tracking” and “Big Picture”.

Real-time is what’s happening right now. For this framework, I depend on Google News, strongly anti-spam filtered e-mail and an always-on combination of CNN, Fox, MSNBC. If something significant happens I generally hear about it within 5 minutes via one of those sources and – conversely – I can generally find what I want to know via one of those sources as well. All of these sources get “continuous partial attention” from me throughout the day.

For trends, I depend a lot on magazines, a very old-school information channel, but one well-suited to me and my work. I rarely need to know the exact instant that something new emerges from the ooze, but I do often need to know about something that’s been around and sustained interst for a month or two.

As a result, I subscribe to – and skim, not read – about 60 magzines and usually pick up another dozen or so throughout a month as I discover new titles or as project and/or clients give me reason to focus on something. Some are general-interest, but many are specialized by industry, by topic or geography. These specialty magazines in particular are good at ferreting out new developments in their areas of coverage.

Big picture ideas I usually find in books, particularly science fiction (see Clive Thompson’s column in the February issue of Wired for a longer discussion of this point). Many of the things we’ve come to experience in the ’00s were imagined by people like Neal Stephenson in the ’90s. Want to know how we’re likely to be doing our jobs ten years from now? Pick up Charles Stross’ Halting State or Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End.

Supplement my sci-fi reading with a healthy does of “real” books – The World Is Flat or Everything Is Miscellaneous being prime examples of what I put in this category – and I have a fairly comprehensive system for staying informed at a variety of levels without drowning in the seas of information.

If I had one thing I’d like to add to my toolbox – and I’m betting I’ll have it within 5 years – it’s a “smart” computer program that will go out and sail those information seas for me. Think of something like a great researcher/ reporter/assistant that knows you very well, knows the things you’re working on and the things you care about and that can apply those parameters to finding and packaging (and eventually analyzing and contextualizing) information you should know – even if you don’t yet realize you need it. I’d be a beta tester for a package like that.

But enough about me. What about you? What do you do to stay informed? What’s your coping strategy of filters and content providers? Does it work? What’s missing? Who’s going to get voted off next?

– Austin grant proposal kind

7 thoughts on “Keeping Up…What’s Your Strategy?

  1. RSS feeds and services that handle them – Google Reader, FriendFeed, FeedBurner, Cullect.com and more – are getting very close to that research assistant you’re eager to best test.

    And you think there’s a lot of info flying at you now…try throwing yourself head first into Twitter. (http://www.twitter.com)

  2. jloveland says:

    …but do we allow ourselves enough time and space to process all that information into understanding and wisdom?

  3. Most of those billions of pages contain junk, irrelevance and duplication. Tools like Google Reader, Google Alerts and RSS are nice for narrowing it all down, but I doubt any of us can really give much attention to the content streamed to us even through the intermediaries we select.

    One key is separating the timely from the timeless. I had The World is Flat long before I tried to read it, and by the time I started, I found it plodding and banal. Turns out the usable insights had long been disseminated more efficiently by others, including Friedmann himself. Further, the simple concept gave me another filter for looking at the world. I didn’t require all his padding and examples in order to apply it myself.

    Another key, then, is locating other human filters who are doing what you do, but covering an adjacent or related infospace. Jon finds them in magazines, but they’re also online.

    For all the tools, we’re still dependent on other people for our knowledge and the fodder from which we synthesize.

  4. jmaustin says:

    Mike – I tried Twitter a couple of times and it’s not for me; too much overhead for too little payback. If I were more tribal I could see how it could work and I’d have loved something like it back in the days when I was managing big events.

    Joe – That’s one of my goals – to create a system of filters and searchers that deliver the information I need but with minimal overhead (there’s that word again) so that I have more time to do the other components of my job.

    – Austin

  5. Dennis Lang says:

    Breathtaking article by Mr. Austin. As a very late-comer to the internet–I was one who “made stuff”–the availability of information staggered me (the library and a few selected subscriptions formerly fulfilled my curiosities). An educator-acquaintance commenting on today’s students from the perspective of a fifty-year career told me she considered them far more informed but seriously questioned whether they were at all better prepared to think–and communicate. Have we enhanced in any way our ability to distill and analyze this bombardment of stuff thrown at us?

  6. jloveland says:

    One of the many flaws in my business model is that I often find I bring most value to my clients at times when I’m not billing a penny — on a run, on vacation, on a long drive or lying in bed sleeplessly. Some of the best “ah hah” moments come during those rare solitary moments when I’m not drinking from the fire hose of information the digital revolution delivered, but am instead taking time by myself to think about what it all really means and what to do about it.

    I wonder whether our bigger problem is under-consuming information, or under-processing it. If the technowizards at Google could somehow come up with software to turn our computers off for an hour a day, might that be the best information management tool yet?

  7. Kelly Groehler says:

    I find it helps to focus on our own business objectives, our own stakeholders, and where we know they go to get information as it relates to what we do, to cut through the clutter. Self-selection is the antidote to the deluge. Doesn’t explain, however, why I waste so much of my time in here…

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