Importance of Being an Information Omnivore

How much time do you spend at work looking at information that would be classified as outside the realm of your expertise or not part of your core job description? If your answer is "very little" then you could be setting yourself up for eventual failure or at a minimum unnecessarily limiting your ability to succeed. Why? Because you need to understand not just your world, but the universe in which your world exists.

If you need an example you need look no further than what has happened to many people in the newspaper industry. 15 years ago many newspapers were riding high, boasting fat profit margins and enjoying monopolies in their markets. Then they were blindsided by what the internet represented – a distributed network of information sharing that pushed them from the center of the daily information ecosystem. Should the folks working in the newspaper industry have seen it coming? In retrospect it's easy to say yes, but at the time the vast majority of them had not an inkling of what the internet/web was about and so could not conceive how they might be able to utilize it to beat their competition, much less prevent it from decimating their entire business.

But what if some of the senior newspaper execs had spent the late '80s or early '90s looking at the larger universe of information distribution, looking at their circulation operations as one form of information distribution and figuring out how these new forms of distribution could change their business? It's quite likely that some did, and surely there are publishers out there who can point back to efforts at starting fax-based updates, email alerts, etc. But how many truly took the time to understand the underlying shift in information flow, to grasp how the new technology would be adopted by their customers and how they might shift to meet those changing consumption patterns? It's pretty plain by the state of the industry today that not many succeeded if they tried.

Over the last few years the big shift for many industries has been the rapidly expanding adoption of smartphones (over 50% of the US market now uses smartphones), but anyone who's been paying attention has seen it coming and hopefully has been adjusting to address this new reality. But what's next? What's the next big shift in how we do business going to be? It could be something related to Bitcoin, and the why is explained by venture capitalist Fred Wilson in a blog post he wrote to explain his firm's investment in a company called Coinbase:

We believe that Bitcoin represents something fundamental and powerful, an open and distributed Internet peer to peer protocol for transferring purchasing power. It reminds us of SMTP, HTTP, RSS, and BitTorrent in its architecture and openness. Like what happened with those other low level protocols, entrepreneurs and developers are now building technology on top of Bitcoin to make it more useful, more accessible, and more secure.

This has the smell of something important because it could potentially change how companies exchange services for compensation. What's more fundamental to a business than that? More importantly, how much could something like that change your business? Well, how much did the wide adoption of credit cards change business 30+ years ago? But that only offers part of the answer since this feels like something that eases transactions like credit cards did, but expands the market like the web did.  And who could this new development threaten? The banks are a good bet.

So who thinks that bankers truly understand what this could represent? Sure, they see it and they think about it, but how many truly understand the tectonic shift going on beneath the surface. Probably not many, because you can bet there probably aren't many bankers who have stopped counting their money long enough to try and understand this "Bitcoin World" and they could suffer the fate that many newspapers have over the last ten years.

That's where the title of this post comes into play. It is vitally important for all of us to be information omnivores, because you must understand the larger context in which you're working and living. While you don't need to understand all the technology that underlies what we do, just like you don't have to know how an internal combustion engine works to understand the affect of cars, you do need to understand how their application and adoption will affect your business or your life. How do you do this? Simply by being curious. Watch TED talks, read articles in trade magazines from industries that aren't your own, read the blogs of experts in other fields, take a class at a local community college or take a free class from one of the online programs like Coursera. The possibilities are almost endless and even if you never apply the information you glean to your day job you'll know something you wouldn't have otherwise. Worst case scenario you'll probably get better at Trivial Pursuit and you'll be able to wow people at dinner parties with your amazing grasp of (seemingly) worthless knowledge. More likely you'll find that your newfound knowledge will come in handy in ways you never anticipated.

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