Saturday, September 5, 2009

Information Gap, or Mythical creatures

I was working with a client who wanted me to produce some documents to plug what he called "an information gap" about upcoming changes in the company. What was disturbing about this particular assignment was the lack of any meaningful deadline. The feeling seemed to be that the company employees were going to wait patiently while I wrote the document, had the document reviewed, revised the document, had it reviewed again--all before the document was finally distributed.

What my client didn't seem to recognize is that there is never an "information gap." In the absence of information people just make stuff up (this is what is referred to as "the rumor mill"). You can see this happening in the US right now with the ongoing debate on health care reform. The clause that allowed you to be reimbursed for charges incurred while discussing "end of life" care (provided that you didn't do it more than once every five years) got turned into "pulling the plug on granny."

You can't even say that there is an "accurate information gap"--while any information gap is filled up with unauthorized information, some of that information is pretty astute. The critics of the existing health care plan point out that any reform will lead to some kind of rationing, even though the existing plan doesn't call for it. To be fair, the existing system has rationing also, of course: The current rationing system is based on income (millions of Americans are limited to whatever care they can get at an emergency room) and what insurance companies permit (the infamous 'pre-existing condition', among other tools). In Canada, rationing is done through wait times.

Back to my client: There is, at best, an "authorized information gap." Since unauthorized information will fill any gap immediately, it's critical to get authorized information out as quickly as possible. In critical situations "as quickly as possible" may mean bypassing normal quality reviews and revisions: a simple fact check may be all that time will allow.

The other problem that my client was running into was what he wasn't allowed to say. Since there were many things that he wasn't allowed to tell staff, he was considering not releasing any information at all (I checked that I would get paid even if my document wasn't distributed). Even when you can't provide information, there is lots of information that you can provide:
  • Contradict unauthorized information that is wrong
  • State that you don't know this, either (people tend to assume that others do know but are keeping the information to themselves--which leads to more "unauthorized information" about the motives for keeping the information hidden)
  • State that you do know this but, for these reasons, are unable to discuss it. And then apologize for that and promise to produce the information as soon as it is legally/practically/socially/whatever possible
An information gap is a mythical create, like a chimera, except that ignoring it is as deadly as if the beast was real.

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