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In business as in research, we often confront a wealth of information -- much of which seems only tangentially relevant or marginally useful to the question at hand, but which we shouldn't simply dismiss outright. Information Triage is the continuous process by which we refine the information we gather, paying most attention to the information that is most valuable and identifying additional information we want to procure.
For example, suppose our task is to recommend precisely which new printer our company should purchase. The task is significant because we'll need to buy printers for each department, and because some previous printer purchases generated lots of wasted time and management ill-will when the equipment jammed, broke down, or turned out to be incompatible with the company's software. Yet the task is also bounded: we're just buying some printers, it's not our core business, we can't afford to spend untold hours or hire outside experts. We just need a sensible, defensible decision.
In the world of web sites and fax machines, it's easy to gather data. Still, our task is formidable:
- We have too much raw information. We need to identify the issues that matter, not learn everything that might be known about printing.
- We have too little structure into which to fit the information, because we don't yet understand the shape of the information space.
- As we learn more about available products and about our own needs, our understanding of what we need to know will undoubtedly change.
- We'll need to share our reasoning with colleagues, and we may need to defend it to management.
As a first pre-requisite of information triage, we require an efficient way to write things down -- to record information about specific products and technologies, and about our needs. For small projects, this may simply require a file folder filled with product literature and photocopied magazine articles. As the folder becomes unwieldy, you may want to build an index or summary in a notebook, or in Tinderbox.
Next, as key issues and cutpoints become evident, we'll want a clear way to tag or identify information that bears on these issues. If operating cost and printing speed appear to be critical to success, then you might want to highlight pertinent information in each document. Often, we may adopt more complex conventions to help us focus and consolidate data -- yellow highlighting for costs, blue sticky notes for throughput, green ink for missing information you need to pursue.
Finally, you'll want to consolidate the information in a map or overview that can serve as a discussion document or a recommendation. Ideally -- and this is the strength of hypertext tools -- the discussion document can survey the conclusion without unnecessary detail and yet can make all the raw information readily accessible when needed. The great failing of the "one-page executive summary", of course, is that it deprives experienced executives of the raw information that they have spent many years learning to interpret.
Discard the details that don't matter -- but only those. Since you often cannot be certain that changing political, technical, or economic constraints may not alter the decision environment, omitting detail is treacherous. Incremental formalization, hypertext links, and spatial hypertext maps let you focus on the details that seem central to the decision while retaining ready access to a wealth of additional information.
A foundation of the study of Spatial Hypertext is the award-winning paper "Spatial Hypertext and the Practice of Information Triage" by Marshall and Shipman (pdf).