Data and decision making – how to beat information overload 

A friend remarked recently that she was reading Malcolm Gladwell’s 2005 book Blink, which suggests that instinctive decision-making based on unconscious impressions and ‘thin slices’ of information can be more effective than deliberate decision-making using more time and information.

She said I’d hate it because it is antithetical to what our business is all about – using data and information to support decision making and solve complex business problems. The accepted idea is that more and better data provides more credible evidence, thereby enabling a better decision to be made.

Sometimes this is true – but only sometimes. Let’s bust a few myths.

1. First, more information does not necessarily mean a better decision. Too much information can result in ‘information overload’ – a phenomenon I’ve seen many times in pressurised situations. In any case, decision making is a fundamentally human act that is not only based on information processing. Knowledge, judgement, beliefs, biases, experience, contextual understanding, instinct and other stimuli all come into play. These ‘orienting factors’ are part conscious and part unconscious.

2. Secondly, more time does not necessarily mean a better decision. Sure, sometimes more time enables a more thorough evaluation, and may lead to a better decision. But often, extra time leads to indecision and ‘analysis paralysis’. For any decision, there’s an ideal time to decide and a set of required inputs.

Sometimes trusting your instincts is the right thing to do – and has other positive effects like speeding up operational cycles or buying back time to use for other things. At other times, a more deliberate approach is needed.

3. And thirdly, the act of deciding can’t be protracted: all decisions are made in a moment. Inputs may be collected over time, but we decide in an instant.

However much information you have access to, the key is to synthesise it to make the best possible decision at the right moment. This is where information systems can make a real difference. Knowing how to present high-quality, tailored information at the point of decision can be a game changer.

A decision-making framework is a useful basis for considering these ideas. I believe that the best framework, by far, is Boyd’s OODA Loop. This was developed to characterise the decision-making processes of fighter pilots as a repeating cycle of Observe, Orientate, Decide and Act (OODA). Importantly, Boyd recognised that in the orientate stage, observations (information inputs) are combined with what I’ve called the ‘orienting factors’ to enable good decisions to be made quickly, often under great pressure.

Boyd’s model is sophisticated, and just as relevant to deliberate decision-making.
Having figured out how long we’ve got, our job is to use the time available (a second, an hour, a day…) to bring together a set of inputs and stimuli, do our best to understand what they all mean, make the right decision when we need to, and then evaluate (formally or through a glance over the shoulder) how we got on. OODA.

Naturally, with less time in hand, and in certain situations, the orientating factors play a greater part than objective evaluation. In other situations, and with more time to play with, it is proper to evaluate more information and to create a body of evidence on which to base a decision. But even then, synthesising and presenting this information in a way that empowers, rather than hinders, the decision maker at the key moment is all-important.

This tells us important things about how to support corporate decision makers – including how to go about using technology (such as BI) to help them do their jobs. What decisions must be made? By whom? In what context and timeframe? With what consequences? What are the specific needs of the decision-makers? And then – only then – what tools can be used to help? Our expertise is in working with clients to answer these questions, providing return on investment in decision making processes and systems.

So, we don’t hate Gladwell’s book. We understand that all decisions reflect a whole range of orienting factors that stem from who we are and all that we’ve seen and done.

Different situations and requirements demand different approaches. Different balances between, and uses of, information inputs and the partially-unconscious orienting factors can be used to contextualise and interpret those inputs.

The real skill is in understanding how to approach each different situation and requirement.