Phil Parker

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 11 November 2011

Information Hoarders, Bridges and Moats

There are two kinds of people in this industry; those who have learned how to fish, and those who just have some fish.

The first kind trade on their transferable skills. These are the kinds of people who you could drop into any situation and you know that they would be useful. They’d know how to recognise patterns and scenarios that are similar to those that they’ve experienced before and know how to apply the tools they have gained to improve the current state of affairs.

The second kind of person lacks these skills and instead, relies on information gathered, normally over a long period of time. This information will often be quite proprietary to the business or industry in which they operate, and often includes trading on their long list of contacts (it is who you know after all!)

The problem, for those lacking transferable skills, is that all they have is a depletable resource. This means that they are naturally going to be less generous with the distribution of this resource. In practice this means that getting information out of these people can be like getting blood out of a stone. Tiny amounts of useful information - that could have been effectively communicated in five minutes sketching on a whiteboard - is hidden away in reams and reams of formal documentation, which can take months to appear, and most of which turns out to be boilerplate.

So how does this effect you and your work? Well if they were just sitting on their hoard of fish then it wouldn’t be a problem, unfortunately information hoarders are often scared that their information might run out. Therefore they have to look at ways to replenish their supplies. The best way to do this is to create a role sitting between two communities where they can control the flow of information.

Sometimes people will describe this role as being “a proxy”, or “a facilitator” or, my personal favourite, “a bridge”. The irony of the latter term is that bridges are designed to bring disparate areas closer. Information hoarders claiming to be “a bridge” is kind of like your friendly local philanthropist taking credit for building a bridge before you realise that it was them that dug the moat in the first place.

If you come across someone who demonstrates the above behaviours, the only way to deal with them is to engage as much as possible initially and then build relationships directly with those people that they are “proxying”. Take every opportunity to meet as a group and start making useful decisions without requiring the “facilitator”. Show the skills that you have and people will start beating a path to your door.

So what if you take a long cold look at your working life and realise this is you, that you have become an information hoarder. It’s simple really, be generous with the knowledge you’ve got, and start working on your transferable skills.

Learn to fish.

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