The Information Gathering Spot: Addressing the Terrible Truth About People and Information

When I served as “information strategist” for the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio from 2000 to 2006, I was responsible for connecting over a hundred parishes, over two hundred clergy, and over twenty thousand communicants with the bishops and diocesan staff, and with one another. In the year 2000, the main diocesan communication channels included the US mail, phone calling trees, limited e-mail use from personal lists, and a diocesan newspaper that came out eight or so times per year. There was a website maintained by a volunteer, but this consisted mainly of parish listings, intended for people outside the Episcopal Church.

Now, I’m married to an Episcopal priest, so I had a particularly personal stake in how the communications went. The clergy’s main complaint was that every day, as many as ten identical, No. 10 business envelopes arrived from the diocesan offices. Because they were indistinguishable one from another, they tended to sit together in the inbox until they could turn their attention to them. Besides these envelopes, there was no easy way to find out what was going on in the life of the diocese, the practical quotidien information.

We were locked in a non-communicative tug-of-war:

  • Parishes and Clergy: “Why didn’t you tell us?”
  • Diocesan Staff: “We did. We sent you a memo.”
  • Parishes and Clergy: “There are too many envelopes—we can’t read all that!”
  • Diocesan Staff: “If you don’t read your mail, then there’s nothing more we can do.”

When I broached the subject with my colleagues on staff, they were not terribly sympathetic: “I read MY mail; why can’t they read THEIRS? They read their mail at home, don’t they?”

So when information was important, we would mail a letter, transmit a copy by fax, shoot an e-mail to let them know it was in the mail, then follow up by telephone to make sure it was received.

I call this strategy “redundancy in pursuit of certainty.” Sound familiar? Has it worked for you? It didn’t work for us, either. In fact, redundant communication produces the opposite effect: The more you “communicate,” the less people pay attention to you, and the smaller their capacity to absorb and retain information.

“Internal communications” often go this way in organizations everywhere, large and small. The technological innovation of the “corporate intranet,” introduced to eliminate precisely this struggle, hasn’t changed it very much. Why not?

The Terrible Truth About People and Information

Truth 1: People will not know a thing until they are ready to know it.

  • You know how you can be walking down the same street you walk down every day and you suddenly notice a building and ask yourself, “Has this building always been here?”
  • You know how you can plan a big community event for months, and you send out “save the date” postcards well in advance, then send personalized invitations, then advertise it on the local radio shows, then hang big, colorful posters all over town, and then the day before, one of your biggest donors can call you up and say, “I just found out about the [event], and now I can’t make it. Why didn’t you tell me about it sooner??”
  • You know how your mother always told you “blah-blah, blah-blah-blah, blah-blah” for years and years, and then one day, you find yourself in a real fix, and you suddenly realize that this is exactly the situation she tried to tell you about all those years…
  • You know how Glinda the Good Witch of the North shows up at the end of the Wizard of Oz, and announces that Dorothy’s always had the power to go home to Kansas, but she hadn’t told Dorothy that back in Munchkinland because “she wouldn’t have believed me; she had to find it out for herself?”

Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about!

Truth 2: At that terrible moment, when they’re ready to know, they will ask why you didn’t tell them and complain about “poor communication.”

Then something “clicks,” the stars move into alignment, or two people have a chance meeting where someone asks the right question, and BING! those same people are ready to “know” whatever it was. In that instant, it seems to them that everyone else around them knew this thing—why didn’t they know? How were they supposed to find out? There’s just no communication in this organization…

Truth 3: Nothing can change truths 1 and 2.

You can try any technique you want: You can send redundant e-mail blasts. You can call people up with reminders. You can post eye-catching posters and banner ads. It won’t make any difference. This point cannot be overstated: MORE communication only makes the situation WORSE. As Peter Morville pointed out in his book, Ambient Findability, the human brain hasn’t had a whole-version upgrade in at least 50,000 years (Morville, 2005, p. 45). Until we get one, we will continue to ignore what we’re not ready to know.

Mitigating the Terrible Truth: Create an Information Gathering Spot

Even though you can’t prevent the phenomenon, you can mitigate it. There are ways to improve the odds that people will “know” more often and more easily. They’re not self-evident, however, and they require measured, disciplined tactics over time. I call this strategy the “Information Gathering Spot” because it requires creating a central location in which all information is shared. I recommend it for any situation in which a large group of people–company, community, or society—needs to be in touch, and in which there is a formal body responsible for “communication,” say, Corporate Communications and an intranet.

Cultivate a single “line of sight” for your audience

Any PR person will agree that the über-goal of communication is to have everybody paying attention to you at the same time, so that when you have something important say, they’re already listening. Reaching this Nirvana doesn’t happen on its own, and it doesn’t happen all at once.

  • You have to build a relationship with your audience over time, raising your credibility as a communicator, and inspiring trust as a respected source of information.
  • You have to put all the information in one place, and direct their attention to it repeatedly and regularly.
  • You have to be consistent, on-time, without fail. Whatever system you as the communicator put in place, you have to use it—and get everyone else to use it—in the same way, on the same schedule, for all your information. Period.

Help people be “ready to know”

Permit me a botanical metaphor: The human mind is a fertile—if overgrown—field in which grow all the things we know. The information swirling around us is like seeds, scattered on the wind. When a seed hits a clear patch of ground and sprouts, that’s when we notice something and are able to know it. Many seeds, however, get caught in the underbrush, and they don’t hit the soil immediately, if ever. Eventually, they may, and then they sprout into something we know.

In order to help people know more things, you have to clear this tangled field:

1. Accommodate the natural hierarchy of information needs

Most of what people care about knowing is basic and mundane. If you look at the web analytics for my organization’s intranet, for example, the most popular piece of content is—by far— the cafeteria’s lunch menu, followed closely by the online phone directory and the system in which you look up your paycheck.

This should come as no surprise to anyone: People need to satisfy their stomachs and their wallets before they can think about anything more “ethereal” like our “shared vision.” By providing immediate access to these “reptilian” items, your audience has more attention to pay to other, more “mammalian” things.

2. Make clear why people need to know, and what they’re supposed to do next

People cannot take in “useless” information, and “useless” is entirely in the esteem of the beholder. If it’s unclear why they need to know something, they will dismiss it even before considering it. But marking something “urgent” or “read this!” only confirms its uselessness. Your information needs to convey its own utility and next steps, and this is, of course, the skill of writing.

3. Structure and format your information to be skimmable

Ben Shneiderman, the eminent researcher in the field of information visualization, has made this “Visual Information Seeking” mantra famous: Overview first, then Zoom and Filter, then Details-on-Demand (Shneiderman, 1996). Whether it’s datasets or news items, the principle is the same:

Your users need to be able to skim at a high level (“Overview”) to get a sense of what’s there, then to focus their attention on the categories or subsets of what interest them (“Zoom and Filter”), then to grab the full detail on any single item that they are ready to know (“Details-on-Demand”).

Share responsibility for sharing and seeking

Here are the keys to making this whole strategy work. You have to:

  • Transform your concept of “communication” from a one-way broadcast to an all-way information exchange.
  • Lower the barriers to participation in the system. Everyone must have some access to posting information. It can be moderated and modulated, but people need to feel that if they have something to share that will be of interest to the organization, they’ll be able to get it out there.
  • You have to train your organization to take responsibility for sharing what they know and seeking what they want to know. No one gets to sit back. No passive consumers. If you want people to know something, you put it out there. If you’re a member of this organization, you go see what’s there.
  • You have to redefine the role of the official “communicators” in the organization from the being the single source for creating and distributing information to being the facilitator of this organic information ecosystem.
  • You have to establish a new social contract for knowing: If people don’t use this sytem to make information available, they can’t expect people to know it. If people don’t use this system to find out what’s going on, they can’t complain about being in the dark. In pursuit of this contract, the “communicators” pledge to maintain an easy-to-use system to which everyone has appropriate access.

It’s as audacious a goal as you’ll undertake, but the return on investment will be huge.

Creating an Information Gathering Spot in the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio

When I began working for the Diocese of Ohio in 2000, I had built only one website of about six pages for my home parish, using MS Publisher. Because a volunteer was maintaining the diocesan website and my own experience was limited, I started fresh on a new, separate website. I invited a few members of my stakeholders for a strategic focus group, to ask them what information they really needed and how I could best provide it to them. They were great: They were practical and had reasonable expectations. They needed to know about events and deadlines, and committee meetings. (There was no central diocesan calendar of events, by the way.) They needed a place to get forms and other documentation. They needed to know about changes in the life of the diocese, particularly clergy changes. They needed all this information to be current and easily accessible in one place.

Based on their input, and on my own research into other diocese’s communication vehicles, I built a four-page website I entitled The Bulletin. If you’d like to see its humble beginnings, go to the “Wayback Machine” internet archive:

The main page of The Bulletin was called the “BulletBriefs,” which in simple, categorized, consistently-formatted bullets, showed news and announcements, new documents available for download, new events on the new diocesan calendar, and the next meetings of diocesan committees. Each bullet was linked to one of the other three pages: Calendar, Downloads, and Stories. I invited everyone in the diocese to send me the information they wanted other people to know, which I then entered manually into the web pages. I made this pact with them:

  • If you give me five minutes every Wednesday, I will make sure you see everything that’s new this week.
  • If it’s not in the Bulletin, you don’t need to know it.
  • If you can’t get your information in by Wednesday, you can’t require others to know it, at least until next week.
  • I will make sure that the information is consistent, skimmable, and well-organized.

Every Wednesday, I sent out an e-mail note to any who wanted it, letting them know that the Bulletin for the week was updated and ready. Whenever people asked me questions that the Bulletin could answer, I would tell them what they wanted to know, but I also let them know where they could find it out for themselves. This continual—if you’ll excuse the expression—evangelism was crucial to the strategy’s success. Over time, people offered suggestions for how to improve its usability, and so the design evolved.

Ultimately, the Bulletin became the framework upon which the entire diocesan website was built, and in response to user requests, the Bulletin turned into an automated e-newsletter informing recipients what’s new in the diocese, and linking back to the website. Although I am no longer on the staff of the Diocese of Ohio, the Bulletin still goes out every week.

Creating your own Information Gathering Spot

The principles of this community-based content strategy are almost primitive, yet they can reshape the corporate sense of what communication is and how it works:

  • Everyone who has information shares.
  • Everyone who wants information seeks.
  • The communicator provides and maintains the place for sharing and seeking.

If you keep these simple ideas in front of everyone, in a few years, your organization will find it strange that communication could be done any other way.

Works Cited

Morville, P. (2005). Ambient Findability: What We Find Changes Who We Become. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media, Inc.

Shneiderman, B. (1996, September). The Eyes Have It: A Task by Data Type Taxonomy for Information Visualizations. IEEE Visual Languages , 336-343.

About: rsgracey

@rsgracey has spent his life moving from one area of interest to another, collecting knowledge, skills, and experience (and TOOLS!) for a wide range of creative and professional fields. If you need someone to help you "think through" any problem of information, communication, and the community, don't hesitate to call him in.