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Hancock's Half Page – Information overload

10 December 2010 by
Hancock's Half Page – Information overload

Finding data is easy thanks to the internet, but it's how we use it that matters, says Peter Hancock, chief executive of Pride of Britain Hotels.
Four hundred years ago Francis Bacon coined the phrase "Knowledge is Power". In his day knowledge was passed from elder to younger and came through education and first-hand experiences.

Bacon could not have dreamed how easy it would become in the 21st century to find facts and data on demand. In one sixth of a second Google will come up with over 2.5 million web pages that contain his name alone. Scarcely any subject remains hidden from even the most casual researcher. Name your topic and there are enough statistics, images and records to fill the average brain a thousand times over.

But this is just information - is that the same as knowledge? Of course it isn't. I know how to fold a napkin and how to greet an important guest but I didn't learn those skills on a computer. Billy Connolly knows how to make an audience laugh until tears run down their cheeks but I don't suppose he waded through pages of data to learn his craft.

We now have access to so much information I think it's actually getting in the way of our progress. Take online marketing. We can study analytics that show in incredible detail how many people visit a site, when, for how long, from where, which pages they view and on it goes. All very interesting and much of it really useful - it's grist to the mill for many of us these days. And what do we do with all this stuff? Make mistakes, that's what. Because all decisions, whether good or bad, can now be justified on the basis of market data collected like shells on a beach. Whatever you want to do there will be stats to back up your case.

For example, a tourism organisation recently carried out a survey to discover what the industry expects from its tourist boards. The questions were multiple choice so you had to say "yes" to one of four options before moving on to the next question. The options did not include "none of the above" and so the survey will show that a percentage of respondents are in favour of things they may actually disagree with. Budgets can hinge on just this sort of rubbish.

It's no more logical than making special shoes for Belgians having discovered they have, on average, 1.99 legs apiece.

The most sophisticated gatherers of information, like the big supermarket chains, know how to use it effectively. All their buying, merchandising and advertising decisions are based on carefully analysed reports. But here's the difference - they know what questions to ask.

Having access to information does not give you power. Knowing what to do with it most certainly does.

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