The components of information

May 4th, 2017

Avoid communication mistakes through negative entropy!

 

Today’s post is by Mike Figueroa, Assistant Director of Customer Services at SafeSourcing

Communication is a funny thing. We communicate day in and day out, most of the time successfully, but it’s easy to think of examples where our message has not be received as intended, or we just weren’t able to pick up what someone else was trying to communicate to us. Much of the time, we find that the fundamental issue in miscommunication is that the message giver and the message receiver have different understandings of the concepts being traded back and forth. For example, one person’s idea of “love” looks completely different from someone raised in a family that expressed love in a totally different way. Another simple example could be if you’re sent to the grocery store with instructions to get “apples”. In your mind, when you hear the word “apple” you have a picture of a Honey Crisp apple, but the person who sent the request has an image in their mind of green Granny Smith apples. All communication is based on templates stored in our minds, on hard drives, on documents, etc. And if we don’t understand what information IS, we’re bound to make mistakes in how we trade it with others in our professional lives.

Information, generally speaking, is a representation of other objects stored within a physical medium. All information is stored in physical objects, such as hard drives, CD’s, brain cells, etc. The higher fidelity of information is stored, the more accurately it represents the object of its focus. For instance, a picture of a widget in low definition, and vague description in a specifications sheet, won’t represent that widget as well as a high definition picture, with several pages of precise descriptors. Similarly, a cell phone recording of a symphony won’t represent the event as well as an IMAX recording would. But the IMAX data will be potentially thousands of times larger, because it takes larger physical space, to record information at higher fidelity. This is because the more possibilities your information CAN’T represent, the more detailed it has to be and the more likely it can only represent what you intend it to.

In the Information Theory context, entropy can be defined as the delta of change from order, to disorder/randomness. Information entropy is the average information of all possible outcomes. In other words, information is most precise, when it disqualifies EVERY possibility other than the very specific one it is trying to represent. If the information you are sending could mean any one of a dozen things, you are bound to have some unavoidable margin of error in communicating to your audience. The tricky thing though, is there’s a tradeoff.

The greater fidelity the information is, more precise your communication will be. However, this increases the size of the information content, making it more difficult to manage, decode, or asses. The tradeoff is that the more precise the information, the more difficult to use. How this translates into procurement specifically, is that there will always be some margin of ambiguity in any specifications document. However, that doesn’t mean an RFP can’t be flexible enough to meet a buyer’s needs. Here are a few ways procurement professionals can make sure their documentation avoids falling into some of the common communication pitfalls inherent to the transfer of information:

  •  Identify the most important attributes, and focus your specifications on those. For instance, perhaps the business goal of the purchase doesn’t depend at all on color, or pack size, or the availability of support staff. Keep the more detailed information limited to the important attributes.
  • Add flexibility to your bid for consideration of equivalent products. Sometimes being too specific means that a vendor who may have a superior product to offer, isn’t able to propose his alternative if a specification calls for an exact match to a lesser product.
  • Ask yourself “would something I wouldn’t want qualify under the specifications I’m creating?” Remember, information should guide your audience to a specific concept, and disqualify all other possible concepts, as much as is possible without overburdening your audience.

For more information on how SafeSourcing can assist your team with this process or on our “Risk Free” trial program, please contact a SafeSourcing Customer Service Representative. We have an entire customer services team waiting to assist you today.

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