The Power and Price of Information

11/06/2012 06:07 pm ET | Updated Jan 06, 2013

Information is often viewed as power, optimizing a leader's ability to make successful decisions. In fact, and particularly in academia, where we value knowledge above almost all else, good information seems vital to good decision-making. And this maxim usually holds true.

Unfortunately, we most often are faced with having to make decisions with insufficient information. The more fluid the environment, the more complex the situation, the faster the changes in the environment, the more likely we will have to make decisions without full information. And our current health care, research and economic conditions are just that kind of environment.

What is the downside of making a decision with incomplete information? Making the wrong decision comes to mind. So does making the right decision, but at the wrong time. Any decision may be the wrong choice, as sometimes the best course of action is no action at all, letting proverbial sleeping dogs lie.

However, we must also understand the limitations of insisting on first having complete information when leading into an uncertain future.

One: Information is not knowledge; it is just pieces of data, whether financial projections, interview data, friends' advice or personal reviews of physical plants. Knowledge is the ability to integrate these disparate pieces of information into a logical story that guides decision-making. While information is important, knowledge is even more so. It is dangerous to assume that the amount of information replaces the need to analyze and deduce.

Two: Paraphrasing the disclaimers in our investments, past information doesn't necessarily predict future developments or success. This is even more true when facing an uncertain and changing future. Yes, history is of value, as humanity often repeats its mistakes. And history is often important to identify trends in human reactions on a broad scale. But history alone cannot determine our next steps.

Three: How complete is complete? Straightforward decisions often involve uncomplicated, relatively accessible information. However, as complexity increases, our access to 'complete' information diminishes exponentially. And many of our decisions actually strive for multiple successful endpoints, not one single defined goal. In part, 'analysis paralysis' arises from our inability to recognize that having 'complete' information is less important than knowing what pieces of data are absolutely critical, that information that would irrevocably and diametrically alter our actions.

Most information we obtain only marginally affects our decisions. And our actions are seldom irrevocable, since most entail a process, not an absolute event. Thus, we should strive to identify what pieces of information are absolutely critical to our making a decision, rather than insist on the complete picture (i.e., complete information).

Four: Our need for information often reflects an unwillingness to reassess our decisions as more information becomes available, information that would not have arisen had we not implemented our decision in the first place. This is not about making mistakes, which we all do. This is about recognizing that a decision is made based on the information available at the time and that it may need to be modified as more information (or experience) comes to light.

Five: We often do not recognize the price of information itself. Locating and or generating data, analyzing and interpreting, summarizing and preparing for presentation, all take considerable resources -- notably, personnel and time. Those of us who actively work in research fully understand the price of discovery. Furthermore, many decisions are time-sensitive and the delay ensuing from data-gathering may actually impede the desired outcome. The price of information needs to be considered as we consider its value.

When we move forward into an uncharted future, we should strive to gather as much data as possible to inform our decisions. However, we must also remember that information itself is not knowledge, and that knowledge stems not only from data gathered but from experience, from history and from that most under-appreciated tool, our 'gut' reaction: the feeling that arises from the many subconscious processing and analyses of the world's greatest computer, the brain. Gut reactions aren't infallible, but we should recognize and consider them, much as Bayesian probability theory harnesses the logic that enables us to reason with uncertain statements.

In the final analysis, we should all recognize that leaders, particularly those developing future-oriented strategies in today's fluid and ever-changing environment, need to make the best and most timely decisions possible using mostly incomplete information. Continued transparency and regular open communication will help ensure that we all understand why a decision was made, regardless of whether we fully support it or whether a change in direction may eventually be necessary.