Punching Through the Noise Barrier

Photo by Flickr user pablosanz.
Like most nonprofits, mine at times struggles with effective communication among staff, among multi-organization project teams, and across the larger community. What are the bottlenecks? I think there may be three key types:

1. The quality of the information or message. If what you have is a low-resolution photograph, you won’t be able to send a higher resolution image no matter what you do.

2. Bottlenecks in the communication infrastructure. If the constriction in your system is a 24K 28k modem, you can’t transmit at higher speeds, whatever the bandwidth elsewhere in the system.

3. Signal/noise limitations. However high the resolution, and however zippy the infrastructure, you are still limited by your ability to separate signal from noise. Some of this is about hardware and software (e.g., your spam filtering software. But a lot of this is about your heuristics and processes (e.g., how you decide which emails to read, and how you actually read them).

The first two are the most straight forward and the least interesting. If your images are all low-resolution, that’s what you are stuck with unless you can persuade the photographers to shoot at a higher-resolution. If your router is the bottleneck, buy a faster one, but if you are running into problems because your ISP’s maximum bandwidth is still too slow, there may not be much you can do.

But where your limitations are of the signal/noise flavor, you may have some more interesting options. You can do a lot on the input management side of things to better negotiate the information flow. If the data stream in question is email, you can improve your spam filter, better time management practices, or auto-filter your incoming emails into folders. You can experiment with different communication channels for sharing different kinds of information: email digests, RSS feeds, chat, and other tools may offer ways to more quickly filter out the less relevant information and highlight the most critical.

But you can also increase your signal/noise capacity (and thus the information flow across the entire system) if you can increase the capacity to see and unpack more value out of whatever data you’ve got. If you send an mp3 of Miles Davis’ Funky Tonk to my friend Melanie, she’ll think it sounds nice and might even play it a few times.  But send the same file in the same way to my friend Eryn, herself an accomplished musician, and she’ll hear and understand a great deal more valuable information. In other words, one way to increase the throughput of your system is to help the folks on the receiving end learn and understand more about the information itself. This isn’t necessarily simple or easy, but at least it’s not dependent on structural limitations in the communication system.

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