Masters of the (Information) Universe

Are you drowning in data? Meet three know-it-alls who find the material that really matters.

Rishad Tobaccowala joined Leo Burnett, Chicago's mammoth ad agency, in 1982. He rose quickly through the ranks, became an account executive, and left his peers behind.

While his coworkers struggled each week to make sense of a mass of market data, Tobaccowala cut through reports and memoranda in a few hours. Leo Burnett higher-ups who were drowning in information overload began to appear at Tobaccowala's door, seeking his thoughts on vexing questions: Which emerging trends will prevail? Which risks should the company take?

Tobaccowala had suddenly become the "go-to guy" at Leo Burnett -- he had transformed himself into an Information Master, one of a rare breed of men and women who seem to know things before anyone else; who spot the forces that are reshaping the business landscape; who understand what matters when others don't.

Tobaccowala doesn't have mystical powers of deduction. He has simply discovered a tactic for cutting through all the bits and bytes of data that flow his way each day. His method is to screen information, compare it against a few select yardsticks, and look for contradictions -- which often reveal the few vital insights that really matter.

In the new economy, knowledge is the ultimate source of competitive advantage. Grinding through the daily deluge of news, magazines, Web sites, reports, memos, voice mail, email, and junk mail is tough enough. But to succeed in your job, to get promoted, to become the "go-to guy" in your company you must also master all that information. To help get you started, we asked three know-it-alls who are widely regarded as Information Masters to share their secret techniques.

The Networker

John Perry Barlow, cofounder and vice chairman, the Electronic Frontier Foundation

With the explosion in Internet sites and Web pages, it's tempting to search for important information from your computer. Don't. There's no surer way to drown in information overload.

John Perry Barlow, an evangelist for the digital revolution, believes that a five-minute conversation with the right person can be more enlightening than five hours online. "The most powerful search engines out there," says Barlow, "are other people."

Barlow cowrote more than two dozen songs for the Grateful Dead and is cofounder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco, a watchdog group that works to protect personal privacy and freedom of speech on the Internet. He's also a member of the Index Vanguard Advisory Board, an elite group of world-class technologists that advises the computer and communications industries. Barlow says there's a single reason for his success: "Networking with other smart people."

"Networking" at Work When Barlow cruises the Internet, he doesn't look for information. "I look for a name, for someone I can go interactive with." His targets: high-energy people with insatiable curiosity. He discounts print and electronic news as at best a distillation of some other source and at worst a huge game of hearsay. "It's too far removed from the true origin of intelligence: people."

Sometimes Barlow searches out specific people on the Internet. But just as often he entertains chance electronic meetings. He decides someone is worth listening to if they ask smart questions and display an ability to rapidly analyze ideas.

That's how he found Mitch Kapor, cofounder of EFF. Barlow posted a note on The WELL, one of the original online communities, about an FBI agent who had recently questioned him about the activities of a controversial group on the Internet. Kapor, founder of Lotus Development Corp., replied that he'd had a similar visit. The two swapped a few emails; Kapor then arranged to meet Barlow on a trip to California. They agreed they could trust each other's judgment and work together, and they launched EFF.

"You can begin a fruitful exchange on the Net," says Barlow. "But if you want a more powerful relationship, you'll need to climb up to the greater bandwidth of a face-to-face meeting."

Take Away:

To connect with the best and brightest, you must come across that way yourself. Barlow says he captures other people's respect by being "ignorant, honest, and intelligent." Being "ignorant," he says, requires that he listen and ask questions. "Honest" means telling the truth, so people realize you're speaking from the heart. "Intelligent" requires that you learn quickly, mostly by having confidence that you can do so. Along the way, you must have the patience to sort out what you don't understand.

"I don't mind being confused," Barlow says. "I guess that's one of the benefits of being an old acid head."

Coordinates: John Perry Barlow, barlow @eff.org

The Mapper

Peter D. Moore, Managing Partner, Inferential Focus

Peter Moore is proof of Thomas Edison's observation that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Moore slashes through 15 to 20 publications a day, mastering all that content by drawing "mind maps" of his significant findings. Major corporations pay him a lot of money for the results.

Moore runs Inferential Focus in New York City. He and his three partners read 300 to 350 publications a month and meet for two full days every two weeks to hash out conflicting indicators and distill emerging trends. They report their findings to 35 institutional investors and 15 corporations, from GE Capital to IBM to Philip Morris.

Moore's group has quite a track record. It predicted the 1990-91 recession 18 months ahead of economists at the Federal Reserve, and verified the wisdom of a "value-priced" menu for PepsiCo, which led to Taco Bell's meteoric rise. "Mind Mapping" at Work A mind map led Moore to discover the changing personal priorities that were driving shifts in American consumer spending in 1993 (see illustration above).

Moore began to jot down anomalous events unearthed in his group's wide reading: country radio stations were growing faster than any other broadcast segment, divorces were down, Calvin Klein was up, telecommuting was the new ideal. The entries around the edge of the page seemed random, but as more were added they started to naturally connect.

For the first time, Americans spent a greater percentage of their disposable income on home furnishings instead of clothing, which made Home Depot one of the nation's fastest growing retailers. And banks reported a migration from adjustable to fixed mortgages. The message: Americans were refocusing on their homes.

The connections began to suggest the shape of a tree. Groups of related events formed tree limbs that showed the biggest emerging social and economic trends. These met at the trunk, where Moore listed the common grounding elements, such as financial stability, family values, and simplicity.

The grounding points explained new shifts in American consumer spending, and had great implications for different business segments. Moore told Marshall's, the department store chain, to reduce its focus on apparel and expand home furnishings and gourmet food lines. He told Metropolitan Life to provide special services to help simplify decision making for customers facing major changes in employment, health care, and retirement.

At first, the companies balked. But Moore showed each of them a mind map and a few key pieces of data for reinforcement. He then highlighted budding changes in the companies' own mix of sales, proving that consumers were heading in the directions he predicted. Both companies eventually accepted his advice and profited handsomely. "Mind mapping is a way to store anomalous events," says Moore, "and see if a pattern is taking shape over time."

Take Away:

Six people can read a lot more than one. So try adapting Moore's study-group technique.

Divide up who'll tackle various publications. Then meet for a long lunch every two weeks to talk about what you see and help each other put the big picture together. Moore recommends that you choose people who don't see eye to eye. "The greatest insights," he says, "will probably lie where you most disagree."

Coordinates: Peter D. Moore, PDMoore1@aol.com

The Filterer

Rishad Tobaccowala, president, Giant Step, an independent operating unit of Leo Burnett

"Learning how to think," says Rishad Tobaccowala, "is more important than what you know." Tobaccowala uses "filters" to guide his thinking and to test whether new information is important.

Most often he applies filters that focus on three areas: People -- does the information make sense with what I know about people?; Economics -- does it comply with the rules of economics?; Flexibility -- does it apply to changing circumstances?

If these screens sound simple, that's the point. To focus on what really matters, says Tobaccowala, you must first realize that "two or three key facts can explain much of the world. If you tell me the topography, religion, and age of a country, I can tell you a lot about what goes on there."

By honing these screens, Tobaccowala took on the tough jobs at Leo Burnett. He created an innovative direct-marketing campaign that put Heinz Pet Products on the map. He counseled Union Carbide on marketing Glad plastic products. More recently, he orchestrated the first nightly electronic forum on America Online to be sponsored by a corporation -- Oldsmobile, a Leo Burnett client. It was a smashing success, and touched off a wave of online advertising that's still rising today.

"Filtering" at Work In February 1994 Tobaccowala met with Eric and Adam Heneghan, two leading experts in the then-little known field of interactive technology. The brothers had formed a small company called Giant Step, which produced multimedia CD-ROMs. Two years later Tobaccowala tried to convince Leo Burnett to acquire a majority stake in the company. But higher-ups wondered about the Heneghans' experience (or lack thereof) -- both of them are in their late 20s. Tobaccowala applied his filters:

Will the Heneghans mesh with my company's people? Tobaccowala dropped them into one of his marketing groups for a day, and everyone clicked.

Are they worth the money? The brothers had borrowed $200,000 to start Giant Step, paid it off, and were already making several times that a year. They'd proven they could create a clear-eyed business plan and run a fast-track company.

Do they have flexible personalities -- can they learn? Tobaccowala engaged them in a conversation about India. They knew nothing about the country, but they stayed right with him and asked smart questions. He was sold, and he sold Leo Burnett.

Take Away:

Tobaccowala filters the news by looking for contradictions. In covering the sheep-cloning story, for example, "Time and Newsweek basically took the position that cloning humans would be morally wrong and therefore human cloning should be banned. But The Economist recognized that even if human cloning is banned, someone will still attempt it. Instead, we must discover morals that we can apply to the situation."

Similarly, Tobaccowala "dug deeper" and gradually changed his thinking about the chaotic work atmosphere at Giant Step.

"I always thought that chaos is bad and we must impose order. But taking The Economist's view, I realized that turmoil is part of work and it always will be. So instead of trying to control the uncontrollable, I began looking for ways to make it work for us."

Coordinates: Rishad Tobaccowala, rishad@giantstep.com

Mark Fischetti (mf@berkshire.net) covers business and technology for many publications, including "Smithsonian" magazine and the "New York Times."

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