Handling Obsolescence of Knowledge in Information Work

Posted on October 18, 2012 · Posted in Analysis and Opinion, Individual Solutions

We need food to survive. Old food can do us harm. Therefore, we have a range of defense mechanisms – from our noses and taste buds to mandatory “best use before” dates on food packages – to detect and eliminate obsolete food.

Old documents

We need information to survive in today’s workplace. Old information can do us harm. Where are the defense mechanisms to detect and eliminate obsolete knowledge?

Help! We’re drowning in old information!

Everybody complains about drowning in information overload, be it incoming email overload, social media addiction, too many RSS feeds, and so on. We also complain about useless incoming information, like those annoying “Reply to All” emails. What we pay less attention to is the fact that much of that information is simply OLD. Old, stale, obsolete. As useful to our information diet as a loaf of moldy bread. The distinction between information overload in general and obsolete information in particular matters, because the latter can be targeted by specific defense mechanisms – some existent, others that we still need to evolve.

These solutions span a range from immediate workarounds and behavior changes to technology solutions, many of them yet to be developed. In a sense, what we need reminds me of those mechanisms in biological cells that cause cells to self-destruct when they are no longer needed…

Obsolescence in subscription-based information feeds

Recently I decided to put in order my RSS subscriptions. I consume these via Google Reader, which allows me to skim and home in on news in my professional fields of interest. Very convenient, but as I exceeded 200 feeds the skimming became laborious, so I had a go at the list, and found that it had scores of blogs that had gone MIA years ago – simply stopped blogging. Some had changed their blog’s host and I had to update my feed; others just disappeared (I always find it eerie… who knows what may have happened to them??) Off the list they went!

Another class of feeds I deleted are those that were still active but that were of no use because my interests had shifted over time. The information was new, but my relationship to it was old.

Even worse are Newsletter subscriptions: people subscribe liberally to newsletters (here, you can take a look at mine!) and then forget to unsubscribe when they lose interest. My policy on this is clear – never be too lazy to hit Unsubscribe on anything useless!

Existing Solutions:

  • Of course, unsubscribe from any newsletters you no longer read. Do it!
  • Take the time to clean out your RSS feed list now. Then maintain this going forward.
  • As a publisher – If you switch your blog to another platform, I recommend not just announcing it in a last post on the old blog – use a redirect of the old feed’s address (if you still control its domain) to the feed of the new blog. This allows a seamless transition for your readers.

Future Solutions:

  • It would be a very useful feature for RSS readers if they’d detect and flag inactive feeds – say those that haven’t posted in two months. And allow us to prune them manually or automatically.

Obsolescence in “new” information

Nothing is more current that the email inbox: we top it off every day (those of us that don’t know how to be productive, every minute!). Yet even the Inbox can contain old information. In part it’s because people don’t clear all their incoming mail, so they retain messages (read or unread) that can be weeks old – many of them are no longer relevant; and then there are recent message that have been superseded by newer messages, even during the same day.

Existing Solutions:

  • Apply an Inbox Zero or similar strategy. That is, clean out your inbox every day.
  • Process your Inbox in batch mode in a Threaded View, which pulls related messages in a thread together. This feature is available in MS Outlook as an option and is native in Gmail.

Future solutions:

  • What would be really useful is a way for email messages to expire and disappear at a date defined by the sender (or perhaps the recipient) depending on their nature. Some companies provide tools that implement this function in various ways – for instance this one. Joshua Baer, CEO of OtherInbox, has been driving for changing the email standard itself to include an expiration date in the message header.
  • A high quality thread consolidator feature, that would eliminate earlier messages but only if their entire content is contained in a later one, would be a great addition. However, when conversations diverge, this can get tricky. One somewhat experimental tool that did this is Outlook Thread Compressor, described here. Outlook 2010 has some of this functionality as well.

Obsolescence in “old” information

By “Old” Information I mean all the archived documents, messages and web content that form part of one’s information environment. Actually there’s nothing wrong in its being old per se; the reason it was archived in the first place is because someone thought it had long term value. The question, however, is how long.

Much archived information loses relevance with the passage of time. It can also lose value through the wonderful feature of hypertext – links and references can point to stuff that no longer exists. Company intranets – and of course the web itself – are full of half-dead pages that link to nowhere. Hard disks everywhere are full of documents or presentations that can’t even be opened because the tools that created them are gone. Yet they linger on…

The harm of such dated archives is not just in the space they take up; it’s in the confusion they can sow. If an employee searches for some content and finds a dated site that has been superseded, how will they know it’s no longer correct? If they find two different sites, how will they choose?

Existing Solutions:

  • If you control Intranet (or Internet) web sites, play your part by never leaving dead sites to clutter the digital landscape. Delete from the servers the older versions of documents, sites and blogs!
  • Use a tool that detects dead links on your pages and blogs, and be diligent in trimming the deadwood.

Future solutions:

  • Powerful housekeeping solutions for local disks are needed; something that would take complex criteria from the user and look for unnecessary content that can be removed. Criteria like “Find all presentations related to X that are over 3 years old unless they have been forwarded by Y to Z in the last 6 months”… that sort of thing. Or AI to figure the criteria out for us. We’re still waiting.

What do people actually do?

Unfortunately, many of the solutions mentioned above still have to be developed. It the meantime some people do apply the current solutions, and are diligent and meticulous about how they handle email, disk content and RSS feeds; but most people just muddle through without paying attention to the accumulation of stale information. That’s why you see managers with 5000 messages in their Inbox that they deftly ignore, and why I’m in business helping some of them.

Then there are people who develop their own coping strategies to address this issue. If you are one of these – or have met one of them – and have a technique related to this post’s subject, let us all know!


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