icm2re logo. icm2:re (I Changed My Mind Reviewing Everything) is an 

ongoing web column   by Brunella Longo

This column deals with some aspects of change management processes experienced almost in any industry impacted by the digital revolution: how to select, create, gather, manage, interpret, share data and information either because of internal and usually incremental scope - such learning, educational and re-engineering processes - or because of external forces, like mergers and acquisitions, restructuring goals, new regulations or disruptive technologies.

The title - I Changed My Mind Reviewing Everything - is a tribute to authors and scientists from different disciplinary fields that have illuminated my understanding of intentional change and decision making processes during the last thirty years, explaining how we think - or how we think about the way we think. The logo is a bit of a divertissement, from the latin divertere that means turn in separate ways.

Chronological Index | Subject Index

Share, share, does anybody care?

About ethical engineering and the organisation of knowledge

How to cite this article?
Longo, Brunella (2018). Share, share, does anybody care? About ethical engineering and the organisation of knowledge. icm2re [I Changed my Mind Reviewing Everything ISSN 2059-688X (Print)], 7.2 (February).

How to cite this article?
Longo, Brunella (2018). Share, share, does anybody care? About ethical engineering and the organisation of knowledge. icm2re [I Changed my Mind Reviewing Everything ISSN 2059-688X (Print)], 7.2 (February).

Out of sight out of mind
So the story goes […]
I should forget to remember
and remember not to care

Little Anthony and The Imperials, 1950

Managing knowledge assets in a fast moving information economy is the cognitive equivalent of white-water rafting, of going with the flow and trying not to capsize. It requires alertness, flexibility, and a light and buoyant craft. It will not do to shoot the rapids in a paddle-steamer.
Max Boisot, 1998

London, 5 February 2018 - Let’s have another look at the information overload problem (see icm2re 6.8 and 6.9), this time from the perspective of the user of data intelligence and academic research, areas in which the distinction between information and communications is often forgotten up to a point it creates dysfunctional externalities in markets and unintended consequences for public policies.

The death of a father

Talking about organisation of research findings and change management for science and corporate communication, my mind has recently gone straight to Max Boisot, a polymath father, with a unique mind and a unique role in the whole of the information sciences spectrum.

I was lucky to come across Boisot in 1992, when the italian publisher Franco Angeli had the acumen to publish the translation of Boisot’s first book Information and organisations (1). Perhaps it was because his prose echoed some classificationists’ approaches to knowledge management, as I mentioned in other notes (see my The Neglected Librarian, p. 20) or because of his plain way to look at the complexity of corporate culture and relationships from the height of another level, very close to the essence of the issues at stake and, at the same time, detached from the misery of their competitive nature.

Boisot had a great influence on my approach to knowledge organisation and data management and his ideas seemed fitting nicely within the spaces uncovered by librarianship, information retrieval and informatics or even dismissed by mass media theories.

I learned enormously from his models and conceptualisations about the ways in which we create and diffuse information, activate or prevent the spring of new knowledge cycles and of course facilitate - or not - organisational change.

The more I applied his lesson - or what I made of it - the more I became convinced that his main idea, the codification-diffusion matrix (that he later elaborated in a more complex and versatile model, called the i-space, in 1998), could offer a useful phenomenological and methodological aid to bridge the gap between information sciences, management theories and mass media and cultural studies.

It was like he naturally came to appease all the fragmentary theoretical contributions from these different disciplinary fields so that the practitioner as well as the researcher could concentrate on solving problems and overcome the stiffness of the boundaries between science and engineering on one side and the humanities on the other.

But I must confess at the time there was not a huge call for speculative thinking in my curiosity for Boisot’s proposals. I was instead very cautious with any new normative idea and just simply hungry of getting the best practical advice to sort out things quickly and smoothly in my own working environment: the very utilitarian reason why I loved Boisot’s c-d matrix was because I needed to refer to some academic theory in order to explain the technical and organisational solutions I devised as an employee first and then as a consultant so that my customers could feel more confident that the budget I had was very well conceived and justified.

In fact, it would be slightly inappropriate when not completely unacceptable to say, particularly within any academic context, that my formal education background in the social sciences, in the humanities, in information technology and computer science had produced nothing very helpful but quite fuzzy ideas for which, for now, there was no available bibliography to refer to but my own notes.

Boisot saved me from such an embarrassing, bossy and self-referential posture in several occasions in which I was asked to give public talks on the subject of technologies and innovation for information and communications and organisation of knowledge (2). And if in 2001 I did not quote his works among the essential readings I recommended to librarians, computer and information specialists approaching the changes of the digital economy (in an article entitled Nine lives in a knowledge based economy) was simply because I had already, by then, understood his main limitation. This consists of its same descriptive nature: in a nutshell, Boisot’s c-d matrix helps with the designs (that can be successful or not) and with the interpretations of the existing knowledge processes and artefacts but not with the priority of doing business and making money from information and knowledge management activities - this became the very issue of any information professional after the internet revolution.

Economists still do not know how to turn the economics of information towards wealth and growth instead of the zero marginal society and the eclipse of capitalism described by Jeremy Rifkin. Perhaps more understanding of what incentives can help with knowledge dynamics should be the way forward.

Unfortunately, it looks like Max Boisot the polymath is still mainly ignored not only by social scientists and economists who have surely encountered his ideas at some point of their careers but also by computer science experts and engineers that could profit from the clarity and universality of his conceptual frameworks. As far as I understand he spent his last ten years teaching and counselling a community of free thinkers, philosophers, management consultants - that is not to say that he wasted time, of course! I am sure he left a huge heritage in terms of directions and insight - but his main community of interests and practice has unfortunately taken him away from what could have been an immensely useful and supportive role in economic research and in engineering.

One of the problems he could have helped with is precisely the wicked problem of preventing overload of information in knowledge creation and knowledge management, particularly for academic research and science communications, and from which a number of engulfing socio-economic issues keep arising, from fake news to very weak justifications for research funds.

In sum, it is very sad he died from cancer at 67 but to me he is a bit like he died from philosophy.

The academic avoidance as part of the problem

Academics have an endemic and implicit conflict of interest to complicate and obfuscate the mentioned distinction between information and communications - and phylosophy often comes to help. The distinction, as I reminded in icm2re 6.9, is not at all so easy to draw, define or analyse in many circumstances without making at the same time relationships, communications flows and the whole structure of our knowledge organisation visible to others (3) - that is exactly what the producers of mainstream information and the actors on a competitive scene very often prefer not to do, to obfuscate and shadow or vigorously oppose.

Academic theories and research are often produced to justify salaries, bursaries and grants and are of course, wisely enough, the main concern of anybody interested in that type of career.

Are researchers just stirring the blood of their students or do they really have something new to say? In the first case they are likely to be experimenting new forms of communications for the benefits of their pupils’ learning cycle. In the second case, they could be rejected and ignored by many peers for ages, unless or until they have enough support or chances to be understood.

Shaping and authoring new propositions in knowledge management is complicated and very risky, and often requires what Max Boisot called… white water rafting!

In sum, a clear demarcation between the notion of information and communications exist but it is very often kept behind the curtains of academic theories and practices. It remains undisclosed, as a sort of implicit allowance of a certain amount of conflicts of interest!

At its best, the conflict is what helps good researchers to be also good teachers and vice-versa, translating research into education and bringing back new problems and questions into theory. In turn, its drawback consists in favouring more information overload and datafication than fostering understanding or studying: while their apparent goal is keeping up with the technological evolution of the media used for instructional and educational purposes, the many replicas, duplications and unnecessary publications create pollution and noise the only value of which is to populate social media platforms and open web sites with publicity.

It is true that every time we study - and write something reflective about something we study - we advance at least our own learning. And yet, the most part of the academic literature published today on pretty much any subject is commonly considered quite redundant and worthless when non counterproductive for the advancement of science and human wellbeing by the same circles of people that should benefit from it.

Nobody knows when we will be close to breakthrough discoveries to cure cancer, or to produce new sources of energy or to eradicate Alzhmeir’s disease: in the hope that your valuable contributions to science can help getting there faster, if you are in the right place at the right time and with the right support, nobody but nasty referees or envy peers could ever stop you from publishing whatever you like.

Furthermore, even independent scholars and authors from all walks of life or with extravagant or unusual curricula for a scholar (like Boisot, like myself) can publish pretty much whatever they want using not only aligned and mainstream publishers but also open journals, magazines, blogs, wikis, social media and so on - and have the same chances of being very influential or totally irrelevant about professional matters or public policies, without being on any University payroll.

The engineering edge

Saving users’ time and attention would be a very good goal for data management projects, repurposing one of the major laws of modern librarianship (“Save the time of the reader” as S.R. Ranganathan put it in 1931).

Computer scientists and engineers have already endorsed it, developing studies and applications that aim at preventing or reducing the information overload problem. But the limited results obtained so far demonstrate lack of deep understanding of the root of the problem and the absence of a generally acceptable theoretical basis.

So that several solutions have been sought and proposed in the area of personal informatics for decades without never reaching a significative stage of development or a killer application but lot of gadgets, more or less embedded within the available operating systems and techniques: I make the most of my personal productivity thanks to the integration of my own manual organisation of folders and files and a heavy use of automatic indexing and search retrieval tools. But there is always plenty of allegedly more intelligent ways to save time and attention while managing personal information. For instance, the authors of a filtering algorithm based on clustering of personal tracking data from twenty people have recently claimed they have obtained a 34% improvement of search results relevance compared with other alternative engines (4).

Unfortunately, recommender systems developed for personal data management purposes are based on analysis of statistical correlations that result effective only in a laboratory environment and are then quite difficult to replicate with real users or in other disciplinary fields and working conditions.

So, assuming that it does what it says on the tin, the most advanced recommender system available for now and you may decide to use as a personal assistant or a dedicated librarian would require a huge quantity of evidence to demonstrate its effectiveness consistently over space and time or try to learn what is in your mind when you diabolically prefer this and not that or vice-versa! Being its convenience so uncertain, it is unlikely that you would prefer it to other usual rules of thumb and strategies commonly applied for decision making in conditions of oversupply of data and research. One of these eternal rules of thumbs consists of information avoidance. Very simply! Out of sight, out of mind…

I have put it in almost trivial terms but this is the edge of the engineered approach to information overload and the reason why we have not sorted it yet, in spite of having brilliant technology available at increasingly low cost.

We have fantastic data mining and information retrieval systems that seem good enough for online shopping and entertainment applications, where users are more available to be satisfied through browsing within a certain range of acceptable alternatives than through searching, and not so terribly bad with voice assistants neither (like the various Alexa, Siri, Cortana and for sure more to come).

Other recent experiments that can be seen as more mature have pointed in the opposite direction, taking a bit of a distance from the fuzziness’ and uncertainty of personal data and trying to profit instead from analysis and understanding of contextual clues. Instead of relying only on user characteristics and tracked data logs, researchers have sought to identify the moment in which information overload occurs in a certain field, like they were looking for spotting the outbreak of a disease (5). Still very far from being sold at the coffee shop, but it is an interesting direction, as we know that the 80% of relevant information is generally found in the 20% of the available sources.


I would not be surprised to discover that the academic community does not differ too much from the general public surveyed in the United Stated by the market research company Pew. This discovered a couple of years ago that the average american user feels overwhelmed with the amount of information available on the internet only in the 26% of cases. Still a quite remarkably low percentage of users. Contrary to many experts expectations, 72% of the respondents said they find enjoyable to have so much information at their fingertips thanks to the Internet and the World Wide Web, they do not care about the mess after all.

Either because of a lack of focus on big data and machine learning applications to research data or because of a lack of understanding of common patterns in users behaviours, it looks like reliable and widely acceptable engineered solutions to the information overload problem may be still long way off. Without ethical and responsible policy choices among those who have access to the public or the corporate purse for research and development, it is very unlikely that we can find a solution for a problem that the public opinion does not perceive as a problem (yet).

To this extent, a systematic attempt to find a solution to the information overload problem (or prepare for very dark futures) could be perhaps for some non governmental organisations or widely influential international body to launch an initiative similar in scope to the Principles for Responsible Investment promoted since 2005 in the financial sector with the support of the United Nations (but also other major worldwide initiatives come to my mind, such as those aimed at fighting hunger or illiteracy).

Any research organisation could then have a chance to incorporate organisational and behavioural controls and make periodic assessments of the sources of information that feed into workflows and research projects. Any organisation should be able to easily assess the provenance of the communications shared with mass media and social media, and be responsible for the echo-chambers created by open data policies.

Max Boisot’s ideas of knowledge cycles as well a plethora of available bibliometrics and analytics technologies could help towards this goal within the single institutions - and I do not see any conflict with any of the open science and open data movements’ genuine propositions.

An initiative for “Responsible Research” could eventually show how the entirety of our mass media and communications law, culture and politics has been heavily shaped by and saturated with the influence of media groups and interests since the 1960s and particularly since the New World Information Order in the early 1970s, up to the point that several attempts made from within the same research communities to talk about the information overload problem and in connection with ethical aspects of it have been either discontinued or silenced - do not expect me to go any further in disclosing what the same researchers prefer not to!

In sum, the information overload problem seen from the academic corner seems to me falling into a field of scientific speculations we could call one day “the political economy of knowledge”: there is no doubt that the originator of such a field would be Max Boisot, as it has been proposed by his late colleague and friend Graham Leicester in a passionate and informative obituary (6). But it is up to all of us to design and develop practical solutions to the information overload problem: these should embed ethical principles for responsible and yet profitable and sustainable knowledge organisation, shared among open minded researchers, scientists, engineers, economists, practitioners from all walks of life or discipline.


(1) Boisot, M. (1987), Information and Organisations.
(2) That was especially for talks I gave for a seminar held at Università degli Studi della Repubblica di San Marino, Dipartimento Economia e Tecnologia, in 1997 about knowledge organisation and management in R&D contexts, and for a presentation at Universita’ Luigi Bocconi in 2003 about e-learning developments.
(3) Flichy, P. (2013). Rendre visible l’information. Une analyse socio technique du traitement des données. Réseaux 178-179, 55-89. [available in English as well]
(4) Jones, Simon L., Kelly, Ryan (2018) Dealing With Information Overload in Multifaceted Personal Informatics Systems, Human-Computer Interaction. 2018, Vol. 33 Issue 1, p1-48.
(5) Mustapar, N.A.,et al. (2016) A review towards developing a moment of information overload model. 4th International Conference on User Science and Engineering (i-USEr) User Science and Engineering (i-USEr) :222-226 Aug, 2016.
(6) Leicester, G. (2011), Remembering Max Boisot, 1943-2011.