First, think…

I wasn’t at the Reboot Britain conference today, but there were some valuable nuggets in the twitterstream for the #rebootbritain hashtag. Of these, Lee Bryant’s reference to Howard Rheingold’s closing keynote resonated most for me.

@hreingold triage skills vital to new world of flow

The most common challenge I see from people about social software, Enterprise 2.0, whatever you want to call it, is that it looks interesting, but they are busy enough as it is, and can’t we do something about information overload. “Where do you find the time to do all this?” I can point to examples where these technologies can save them time (using a wiki over e-mail, for example), but these are often seen as problematic for some reason or another.

Wood stack

What Lee has spotted in Howard’s keynote is that people are being faced with a new challenge in life and work, and it probably frightens them.

Up until now, much of the information we need (as well as a huge amount that we don’t need) has been selected by someone else. Whether it is stories in a newspaper, TV programmes on the favourite channel or information within an organisation, someone has undertaken the task of choosing what the audience sees. As a result, we often have to live with things we don’t want. For example, I have little interest in most sports, so all newspapers have a sports section that is too long for my needs. Our tolerance for this redundancy is incredible. But we still resist changing it for a situation in which we can guarantee to see just what we want (and more of it).

According to Wikipedia (and this chimes with other accounts that I have read, so I trust it for now), triage was formalised as a means of dealing with large volumes of battlefield casualties in the First World War. One approach to medical emergencies might be to treat them as they arise, irrespective of their chances of survival. However, doing this is likely to lead to pointless treatment of hopeless cases and to a failure to treat those with a chance of survival in time. The result is a waste of resources and a higher than necessary death rate. Triage means that immediate treatment can be focused on those whose chances of survival are not negligible and where urgency is most important. Triage in medical emergencies is now a highly-developed technique, with incredibly effective results. (However much it may be resented by the walking wounded who are inevitably kept waiting in hospital accident & emergency departments.)

What would triage mean for information consumption? In the first place, it means no filtering before triage. One of the causes of information overload is that traditional selectors (the TV scheduler or news editor) inevitably pay no attention to the personal needs or interests of the audience. How could they? So, unlike the A&E department, we cannot rely on a triage nurse to make our choices for us. Rule zero, then, is that everyone does their own triage.

One of the key things about hospital or battlefield triage is that we don’t waste time with it if there is a clear life-saving need. So rule one of information triage is that anything life-threatening for the organisation or for ourselves needs immediate attention.

After that, we can sit down calmly to review and classify information as it comes in. Rule two: only two questions need to be asked. These are: “is this important to me in my role?” and “does this need attention now, or will its message still be fresh later?

Taking the answers to these questions together, we should be able to assess the importance and timeliness of anything that comes up. Anything that is time-bound and important needs attention now. Anything that can wait and is not relevant must be junked.

The final stage isn’t strictly triage, although it might correspond to a medical decision about who treats a patient. Having decided than a piece of information or an information flow is worthy of attention, we need to decide what to do with it. That is rule three: don’t just read it, do something with it. If information is important, it should need action, filing, or onward communication. What form each of those take is not a question for now, but there is no point paying attention to something if you or your organisation immediately loses the benefit of that attention.

Information triage is just like medical triage in that it stops action before thought. That is potentially a huge change if people have been accustomed to taking in pre-digested information flows without any thought and either acting immediately or not acting at all.

That’s all off the top of my head. Have I missed anything?