A few years ago (in the late 1980’s) I was in charge of what was then called MIS (Management Information Systems). In the transition period between the “glass house” or large main frame data centers to where we are today with e-mail and instant messaging, we had distributed information systems running on “mid-frame computers built by companies mostly out of business today. One of the first of its kind – certainly for my company was a system for our retail marketing division. We had retail marketing store scattered around the country with the headquarters in Tulsa. Our marketing operation had converted from old-time gas service stations to convenience stores like we have today. In the old service stations we only petroleum products ( gas and oil). In the new world we were stocking a lot of other stuff that drive in, grocery stores would carry. That complicated the marketing management operations and the retail marketing operation decided they needed a distributed computer system so that each store could send in information daily that would facilitate stocking and overall operations. The stores had a lot of non petroleum products that added to the complexity and “snail mail” was not always working efficiently.
It took maybe the better part of a year to get the system installed. But when we did, it worked well. We were getting information from each store at headquarters daily, instead of weekly and if a problems arose that needed a decision we could get special reports and decision based that information daily as well. To celebrate our new state of the art system, the VP of Marketing, his administrative manager and I decided to go for a drink at a private club after work one day. We got our drink and I asked our VP of marketing how he liked the system. He said that it worked fine and the only problem was that we had taken his “think time” away. I was surprised by the response, so I asked what he meant. It seems that in the old days someone would call into headquarters from the field and describe a problem that needed a decision. Our VP would asked for a written report that had information and data that helped define the problem and when he got the report, he would make a decision. Before our system, it took about a week to get the report to headquarters, so he would have time to think about the problem – maybe over dinner at night or in the shower in the morning. With contemplation time he would often think of a good solution that he might not have thought of before. With our new system, he would have the report the same day. Once he got the report, he felt like he should go ahead and make the decision and so he would. But without 2 or 3 days to reflect on the situation and think of alternatives, the decisions were quicker, but he wasn’t sure they were better and maybe not as good.
Renzi Stone, a man who is now the CEO of a corporation in Oklahoma City. In May of this year he spoke to the graduating class of the college of Journalism and Mass Communications at the university of Oklahoma. (He is my son’s age and his father was in retail marketing when the above story happened.) He wrote an article on the Op Ed page of our local Tulsa paper last week about what he said to the graduating class. His article reminded me of the my experience. Among other things he said that:
Our brains are sorting for order, yet order is elusive because of the speed that information flows to us. at the intersection of truth and truthiness, it is difficult to decipher which direction to take when both paths look credible. In the past, time allowed the proper amount of reflection and introspection. Today, if action is not taken quickly, we risk being left behind – a dreaded state called FOMO (that’s fear of missing out).
It occurred to me when I read his article that things are much faster and there is much less organization to the information we get today than it was with our system in the late 1980’s. If our VP was worried we were taking away his think time then, what would he think now? When he told me that I had “taken away his think time” I was surprised because what he said had never occurred to me. But after he explained it, I thought he was right. Getting information more quickly no doubt means quicker decisions but not necessarily better decisions. As a manager, I decided that every decision had its time. Some need to be made quickly and some can wait. Waiting provides more information and more “think time” which often provides better decisions.
But as Renzi pointed out to the Journalism class, today we are in information overload. There is not a lot of time for reflection and there is a temptation to react to opinion whether we know it’s credibility or not. The information we get today comes in short blasts without a lot of explanation or (maybe) thought. How we react to that is important. Renzi’s advice to his Journalism class audience was to “become gatekeepers for the truth”. They have the responsibility to tell the truth and a complete story that others can understand and rely on.
I don’t think we are likely to go back to an age when we have a lot of time for reflection time. But the Journalists telling the story need to understand what is true and what is only opinion. The “Whys” need to be told along with the opinion. They are critical to our decisions on what we think and how we vote. They (and we) need to have good judgement and accountability.