Search & Sort: Tips for Putting Information Into Action

Screenshot 2015-07-29 06.59.02According to the philosopher and man of science of a century and a half ago, Herbert Spencer, “The great aim of education is not knowledge but action.” Ralph Waldo Emerson picks up on this thought, adding, “The ancestor of every action is a thought.” As we gather information to educate ourselves on a topic we ultimately aim to take action using this new-to-us knowledge.

Gathering information without the aim of putting it into action may be interesting, but certainly won’t lead to change.

But with the avalanche of information falling on us through a typical Google search, we quickly become buried in material. With pages and pages of results for our simple query there is no shortage of information – results abound! So we suffer from information overload, right?

Well, according to Clay Shirky, who writes and speaks on the effects of internet technology on society and economics, “It’s not information overload. It’s filter failure.” In fact, all of the futurists remind us that the amount of information available to us will continue to increase. More and more stuff will be added to the internet, so we have to improve our ability to find relevant information and be able to access that information quickly when we are ready to use it.

So before we can put information into action we have to gather it and store it or organize it. I think each of us has developed some good habits when it comes to accessing, storing and retrieving information. But I imagine we each have some gaps as well. And what works for me doesn’t necessarily work for you, but maybe you’ve discovered something that hasn’t come my way yet.

The fact is – there are multiple answers to this conundrum of how to manage information so that we can put it into action later. So here are Todd’s Tips for Putting Information Into Action, categorized into phases of gathering, organizing, and retrieving.

Todd’s Tips for Putting Information into Action

Information Gathering

  • Go beyond Google!
    • Find credible sources and case studies through online journal databases using your public library card. Most libraries provide free access to EBSCO and other article databases from the convenience of your laptop.
    • Look at the references in that Wikipedia entry to see where they got the information. You may question the reliability of the Wiki entry, but often the summary is based on valid sources.
    • Use google.com to home in on deeper articles. It takes a little practice to get the most useful results, but you can often find really good full-text articles and e-books.
    • Another Google Chrome add-on, called Mya, is in beta testing right now. It allows users to search specific sites for topical information, then save results for later use.
  • Compare & contrast multiple sources. Don’t trust the first source you find – get different viewpoints and draw your own conclusions.
  • Books, articles and blogs are still great sources of information! Commit to reading non-digital sources regularly.
  • If you’re not sure where to start researching a topic, ask someone! If you don’t have anyone in your professional network to tap in to, LinkedIn groups are a good way to find practitioners and experts in just about any specialty. You can start a discussion and ask for responses, or search for people to connect with and send an InMail to.
    • If you use the Kindle app and highlight quotes, you can access all of your highlights using the My Notebook icon. If you use the desktop Kindle app you can copy & paste those quotes into a separate document and save it in your folder system.
    • Leverage social media. Many authors or professional groups have Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn accounts, as well as blogs. Follow them for continuing discussion and research on topics of interest to you.

Storing & Retrieving Information

  • Consider going 100% digital.* Scan articles and training materials, type up notes from presentations as well as quotes from books. (A bonus of typing up notes & quotes is that your memory is aided by the process!)
  • The key is your folder and sub-folder system. Make it your own – only you need to know how to find things in your system, so do what makes sense to you.
  • Use Dropbox, Google Docs, or some other cloud-based system to store your information so that you can retrieve it from any device and any location.
  • Use bookmarks to sort searches and online finds. Most browsers allow you to save articles as PDFs, so you can easily add that online gem to your folder system.
  • Use tags for individual files to help making search more accurate a
  • When you “like” or retweet an article or other resource through social media, go the next step and save the item in PDF to the appropriate folder.
  • Evaluate your system from time-to-time and make tweaks – pay attention to the growing pile of paper resources and schedule time to scan.
  • Purge! That great article on new technology from 1993 may be an interesting historical record, but it’s cluttering up your files. Get rid of it!

*if you have file cabinets full of paper documents, take out one at a time and scan & file each item. It may take a while, but you’ll have all of those docs in one place, organized for easy access. Make sure your scanner can do optical character recognition (OCR), which makes the text searchable.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of ways to gather and store information, but it should provide some food for thought as you consider how to collect and sort material. Keep in mind Shirky’s warning that it’s not information overload but failure to filter. If you’re getting too much clutter, evaluate what you actually use and remove what you don’t. That could mean unsubscribing to a newsfeed or blog, un-liking a Facebook page, or moving that pile of magazines to remove the guilt of not getting to them!

Putting information into action, then, means being able to access the material you’ve squirreled away quickly and efficiently.

When I am asked to deliver a presentation on change management I can go to my Research folder, open the Change management sub-folder, then see additional sub-folders labeled PowerPoints, Assessments, Theories & Models, and Handouts. I’m not spending hours searching for my stuff because it’s all at my fingertips.

NOTE: I can’t fully claim all the credit for the tips below; they come from a session I facilitated recently for the Omaha Organization Development Network. So thanks, colleagues, for your contributions!

  

Here We Go Loopty Loop: Learning Through Introspection

Double-loop earning

Chris Argyris says, “People consistently act inconsistently, unaware of the contradiction between… the way they think they are acting and they way the really act.” This is the basis for Minding the Gap, my blog that strives to uncover what we say we want from the way we actually behave.

Evaluation is happening all around us in the workplace. We look for feedback on programs, conduct “lessons learned” meetings at the end of a project, and complete annual performance appraisals all in an attempt to determine if we are on track and identify what we can do better next time.

But when it comes to self-evaluation, looking within to see how we may have contributed to any missed opportunities, or even a complete derailment of a project, we suddenly get defensive. Argyris says this tendency is especially prevalent amid highly successful smart people. Success leads to an inability to objectively scrutinize where we may be in error. He says,

Because many professionals are almost always successful at what they do, they rarely experience failure. And because they have rarely failed, they have never learned how to learn from failure.

Argyris identifies two types of learning:

Single-loop: One-dimensional learning that provides a response based on the undesired action. For instance, a thermostat kicks in when the temperature falls below the desired (set) temperature.

Double-loop: Reflective learning where people evaluate why something went wrong. It is a root cause analysis that includes introspection.

And others have gone on to identify a third loop, which Argyris was sceptical about:

Triple-loop: Described as “double loop learning about double loop learning,” this type of learning seeks to understand the learning process itself and about our beliefs and perceptions.

To be truly introspective, to discover why we may be contributing to a problem and admit our own mistakes, takes a huge dose of vulnerability and humility. This is why it is so difficult for successful people – they don’t want to look foolish. It’s much easier (safer) to analyze the external reasons for something going wrong than to ‘fess up to our contributions.

Argyris suggests the best place to start to develop double-loop learning is through simple case studies. Here’s what it might look like:

  1. Identify a persistent issue – a real problem that needs to be dealt with.
  2. In 1-2 paragraphs, describe the situation.
  3. Write out a script of how you might discuss the situation with other stakeholders (employees, co-workers, bosses, etc.).
  4. Write out any thoughts or feelings you will likely have about others’ responses.
  5. Now you’re ready to analyze the issue and include stakeholders in the discussion.

Some things that may be discussed are group dynamics, priorities, blind spots, roles & responsibilities, and other factors that sometimes limit our ability to objectively evaluate your own behavior and biases. Introspection is not always pleasant. We like the idea of being reflective, but only when we see our overly-optimistic view of ourselves. When our motivations, limits and contributions look ugly, we want to quickly gloss over them. Having a humble and teachable spirit, an ability to see the truth about who we are but not letting that truth overwhelm and discourage us, is the key to learning the way Argyris describes it.  

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