Saturday, 21 November 2009

The Information Trade-Off

Obtaining more information can help improve the quality of decisions by providing more detail about impacts and reducing subjectivity over probabilities.  It also helps to build up awareness of other alternatives that could be taken.  In general, it is a given that seeking more information will be beneficial to decision makers, having the general effect of reducing the level of uncertainty involved in a decision, and making it more likely that the outcomes of particular decisions will provide opportunities for learning.

However, there is a trade-off to be made.  Decisions usually have to be taken within a particular timeframe, and getting more information takes time.  It can also cost moneuy.

Both of these have implications for the level of extra effort that goes into facilitating more informed decision making.

The decision makers can reduce subjectivity by researching what is going on in various areas.  As they learn more and more, the probability that they are assessing becomes less and less subjective.  In the end (in theory at least), they can arrive at an objective probability.  However, there are some important issues facing them:
  • getting information takes time:  the report must be submitted at a given deadline, even if they havent't pinned down the probability of the event occuring.
  • gettting information costs money:  doing research will use up the resources of the business; you have to decide how much investment in information to support decision making is appropriate; this means assessing how sure you can be of the information you do have, and how much more certainty can be achieved for a reasonable cost
  • situations change over time:  as you collect information to help you make a decision, the context or nature of the decision may be changing; there may be a limit to the accuracy you can achieve.

Inevitably, decisions have to be made with limited information.  Before you make a decision, you have to decide whether the information at your disposal is sufficient to make the decision, or whether you are going to make an investment (in terms of time or money, or both) in getting more information - and how this might affect the nature of the decision itself.  (You also need to guard against certain psychological traps.)

Management actions feed into decisions and affect their outcomes, whether this is in the form of considering decisions for longer, obtaining more information or just bringing different personal perspectives and experience to bear on the decision.  There will always be uncertainty involved, but by putting time and effort into decision making, its negative effects can be minimised.  In many decision situations, there is a 'third way' - the choice not to follow one of the branches on the tree, but to invest more effort in refining the picture of the decision before it is taken.

This poses interesting questions:
  • how much is your time worth?
  • what potential downside of this decision would you be prepared to accept if you could spend the time thinking about another issue instead?
  • what potential upside do you regard as being a good 'purchase' to make with your time?

Up to this stage, you have acquired the knowledge you need to assess whether simple games of chance are worth playing.  Business decisions are much more complex and subltle than this, and you will never reach a point where you 'know everything', as in the dice game.  The issue is how much time to put into making a decision, and whether to put additional resource in obtaining more information before making the decision. 

In the end, this is likely to be a judgement call.  While time can be quantified and given a nominal cost,k the benefit to be obtained from it is likely to be very difficult to quantify.  In fact, until you actually invest the time, you cannot know how beneficial the information you gain will be.  We have to deal with this contradiction every time we take a business decision.

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