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The Future of the Future
Enough information already—
Bring on the Explanation Age

This article appears in the issue March 2011 (100 Companies) [Vol 20, Issue 3]
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According to IDC, more than 1,000 exabytes of digital data were produced in 2010. That’s equal to one zettabyte, which is a scary indication that we may be reaching the end of the alphabet of available prefixes for measuring data volume. The problem with trying to keep up with this much data is that business at the “speed of thought” hits a bottleneck, mainly because our technological evolution has been all about data and very little about enhancing the thought process in a way that helps us make better sense of the data.

This is evident in our continued use of the same structures for presenting and disseminating information that we used back when monks dutifully hand-copied pages of Latin text onto vellum. Those structures bear a striking resemblance to the current HTML page layout we see on many websites today: title, author, date, headings and subheadings, numbered footnotes and references—with a banner and a few graphics thrown in for good measure. An Irish monk from the 8th century could be brought back to life today and barely miss a beat.

While the medium has changed, the basic elements for describing our world also remain the same, consisting of the who, what, when, where, how and why of the topic being discussed. Questions regarding who are still answered with personal profiles, only now numbering in the hundreds of millions via online social networks. Questions regarding what are still based on indexed keywords, only now resulting in millions of “hits” from search engines. Questions of when are still answered using traditional calendars, only now with that little date widget that keeps popping up. Where is still answered using maps, but now we can overlay satellite images and GPS data to show our precise location and destination. How to do something is still answered with diagrams and step-by-step instructions, aided by BPM and workflow tools.

That leaves us with the question of why, which has been largely untouched by modern technology. Much of the reasoning behind even the most important decisions remains hidden from view in handwritten diaries or stories waiting to be told.

The consequences of neglecting the why

We make one disastrous decision after another, only to say we didn’t have access to the right information. We claim that our decisions are carefully thought out, but we fail in their execution because conditions keep changing. Yet, we insist on using static artifacts such as decision memoranda or policy documents. Any thought processes that went into the decision are quickly lost. When conditions change we end up going back to the drawing board. That vicious cycle repeats because by ignoring the why we lose critical contextual elements such as assumptions made, decision criteria, rationale, alternatives considered, etc.

Case in point: Discussions are currently underway regarding our returning to the moon within a decade or two. Efforts to recover Apollo mission data from those old Kennedy 9000 tape drives have produced lots of raw data, but little if any supporting context or rationale.

The mismatch is obvious. As rational beings, our brains are designed for activities such as inquiry, sense making, reasoning and explanation. Yet, our information systems deliver never-ending streams of mindless output more suitable for automatons than humans.

Why the reasons behind the facts get lost in the noise

Let’s be honest: Explaining things is hard. We won’t go into them here, but a quality explanation requires eight distinct degrees of reason (see John Lewis’ book The Explanation Age). Only the lowest degree, based primarily on rote learning and routine practices, is apparent in most of the information artifacts we produce. The other seven are hidden or brushed aside with admonitions like “Trust me,” or “We have to pass the bill so you can find out what is in it,” or one of our favorites: “Because lots of famous people are investing with Bernie Madoff.”

One reason so much of the why seems to be missing is that our education paradigm puts most of the emphasis on the who, what, when, where and how. Children have the right idea—they insist on asking “Why?” every time you tell them something. Since we either don’t know or don’t want to take the time to explain, we tell them, “Because I said so.”

This learned behavior gets carried into organizations. A meeting notice is sent to a list of attendees with an agenda, time and location (the who, what, when and where). The meeting starts and one of the first questions asked is: “So why are we here?” since few if any remember why certain decisions were made at the previous meeting.

Building the World Wide Why

We could argue that “WWW” today actually stands for the World Wide What. We need to begin transforming it into the World Wide Why. The Explanation Age presents us with a golden opportunity to stop the madness of generating oceans of data with limited access to the reasoning behind the data. Instead of finding the answers and then digging for the hidden rationale, we need to flip the approach.

Imagine the ability to quickly see an entire thought process, then click to the embedded data that drove the decisions. In this way, transparency will be measured not by the number of documents we place online for others to read, but by the clarity with which our options and choices are presented. Consider this as moving from accessibility of data to accessibility of reason.

One of the Explanation Age tools aimed at accomplishing this is called an option outline, which is a listing of the options considered, with indentations at each choice made. An option outline provides a record of the possible outcomes along with the assumptions and dependencies for each. This process alone would take our public discourse to a higher level.

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