What Does "Cyber Dust" Have To Do With Process Change?

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Jeff Cole

Man in mask on computer


Step back in time with me to a simpler and slower time – 1970.    It had been less than one year since man first set foot on the moon, gas was .54/gallon and the DOW reached a whopping high of 908.    We were many years away from the internet, cell phones, tablets, DVRs, flat-panel televisions, and still one year away from Starbucks being founded. 

While that may sound primitive to you, there was a very futuristic book published that year.   Entitled Future Shock by author Alvin Toffler, it contained predictions of the future including the “electronic frontier” among others.  

Future Shock itself can be thought of as experiencing too much change in too little time.   Think of a tranquil pond containing one lily pad.   Each day the number of lily pads doubles to the point where the pond becomes 100% covered on day 30.   On what day is that pond half-full?   If you said Day 29 you are right!   Day 29:  ample “breathing room”.   Day 30: the pond is totally choked with lily pads.   Toffler posited that we are at Day 29 in our lives and the amount of information and change presented to us is exponential.  (BTW:  if you ever heard the phrase “Information Overload” you can thank Mr. Toffler…)

Toffler nailed it – and that makes great sense to those of us with overflowing email in-boxes, large backlogs of reading, and television screens simultaneously presenting the news, an informational crawl at the bottom, a station watermark, and some graphical icon in an upper corner from the local weatherman.    People walking through major cities around the world with no situational awareness because they are heads-down focused on the latest text, tweet, or snapchat about what their favorite celebrity just had for breakfast.   

So what?   For one thing it makes our jobs harder when trying to drive process change in organizations of any size. 

Problem 1:  Communications   

Your brilliantly–crafted message announcing a process change is the equivalent of one eye-dropper of information in a swimming-pool sized barrage of numbers, letters, images and noises drenching your audience each waking day.   You are one billboard among many along a road with a 100 mph speed limit.   Can’t catch their attention in less than 3 seconds?  Might as well not even have written the message…  

Prescription:   My mentor Rob Davis learned in his career that to get your message recognized in such an environment, plan on “8 times, 8 ways” of communicating.   The days of one-and-done memos are sadly long gone in many places.  

Problem 2:  Cyber-Dust    

We can capture data much faster than we can analyze and properly respond to that data.  Toffler referred to this in 2010 as “cyber dust”.   I did some rough calculations (these numbers are not precise but are roughly in the ballpark).  According to Amazon, a Kindle holds 3500+ books.  A typical novel runs 80,000 – 120,000 words and an average reader might read at about 300 words per minute.  That’s 4-6 hours to read a novel.  Thus, if you did nothing but read 40 hours a week, that Kindle would keep you busy for 6.7 – 10.1 years.  Not bad considering you can fill a Kindle full of books in a couple days with a few clicks.    

It will just get worse.  

Virtual Reality (VR) is in its relative infancy.   Managers today are struggling to make sense of 2-dimensional Excel spreadsheets saturated with red, yellow, and green coded metrics.  Can you image what your staff will do to you once we break into 3-dimensional VR metric reporting?   Imagine cubes within cubes of information.   Human brains simply can’t synthesize that much information.  

Also, it is very easy to over-engineer and over-measure a process.  In some places it actually becomes a part-time job of just monitoring the new process measures you create.   Sure, apps and artificial intelligence will help you hack your way through the dense jungle of data.  However, we may still want a human there to interpret that in light of a constantly changing array of potential decision criteria.   

Prescription:   Think vital-signs:  what are your process’ pulse, respiration and blood pressure?   Before you dilute managerial brain-share by cramming another new metric into an already overcrowded tracking report, be very certain that it is critical.   Are there some metrics that can be removed or monitored less frequently?  Can a new metric be self-monitoring automatically and inform you when action needs to be taken?    Can it be shown visually vs. in a spreadsheet?  Lastly, in honor of my six sigma friends - be certain your new metrics are variation-based as averages notoriously mask variation and can be very misleading.   

Thank you for reading, and now, if you’ll excuse me – I have to brush off the cyber dust and finish working on my seven other ways to communicate this message…

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