High Tolerance for Ambiguity

By on May 2, 2008
Follow me on Twitter: @varnum

The 2.0 world — in libraries in particular, or the web in general — is helping to address the information management problem of ambiguity. In his inaugural column in the May issue of KMWorld,” Now, everything is fragmented,” David Snowden notes: “The more you structure material, the more you summarize (either as an editor or using technology), the more you make material specific to a context or time, the less utility that material has as things change…”
Much of what the knowledge management world, and, for that matter, librarians more broadly, seek to accomplish is to get the right bit of information to the person who is looking for it at the right time. However, as we build systems to accomplish that task, we often run counter to both the defining characteristic of our age and what he describes as one of the defining characteristics of our species. Snowden writes:
First, we live in a world subject to constant change, and it’s better to blend fragments at the time of need than attempt to anticipate all needs. We are moving from attempting to anticipate the future to creating an attitude and capability of anticipatory awareness. Second, we are homo sapiens at least in part because we were first homo narrans: the storytelling ape. Dealing with anecdotal material from multiple sources and creating our own stories in turn has been a critical part of our evolutionary development.
Information systems are typically built to remove ambiguity. They are tailored to the specific need at hand. Snowden notes that there is a risk to building systems that remove ambiguity by “chunking” information into discrete elements. This risk is shown through research (in national security, in particular) that indicates raw intelligence is more useful over longer periods of time than the reports based on that raw data. 2.0 environments, in which users of information build on the raw materials, mixing and matching sources in novel ways, are more flexible, allowing for changing needs to reflect themselves over time.
A mentor and twice-supervisor of mine described someone’s ability to survive in an organization by saying that the individual either had or lacked a “high tolerance for ambiguity.” Having a high tolerance was a good thing: if you could keep your relative sanity as organizational priorities and day-to-day exigencies changed, you were in good shape. As librarians, we need to develop a high tolerance for ambiguity in the information systems we design and provide. By this, I don’t mean developing to wishy-washy specifications. I do mean that we need to build systems that enable our users to pursue information-seeking paths we don’t, or can’t, anticipate. Systems must be built to allow others to get to the raw data, manipulate it, and do what they will. As we today’s information needs, we must also allow for flexible interpretation and serendipity of discovery.

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