Thinking Right About Content


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As I evaluate and use information products and services, one thing I look for is evidence of right-brain thinking—in products and services offered as well as in companies' marketing and communications approaches. Sadly, we are primarily a left-brain industry. This obsession might seem trivial, but I guess my right-brain outlook on life causes me to take a holistic view of the information marketplace.

The right-/left-brain concept is widely credited to have developed from the thinking of American psychobiologist Roger Sperry in the late 1960s. Sperry's Nobel Prize-winning work opened whole fields of psychological and philosophical debate including the idea that there are two different sides of the brain, each controlling a "mode" of thinking, with individuals preferring one mode. Left-brain thinkers focus on the logical, rational, sequential, and analytical while right-brainers prefer more random, holistic, and free-associated approaches. Psychologists say that left-brainers focus on words and numbers while right-brain people focus on visual images and patterns. In our world, one might say that left-brain people make logical deductions from information while right-brain thinkers prefer to make lateral associations from information. But here's the problem: most information products are built by and for left-brain types. Almost all information products deliver words and numbers in logical ways; few offer visual cues and easy-to-access lateral information.

Back in the 1980s, my first job was a miserable year-long stint as a clerk on a bond-trading desk. One interesting thing was all the peripheral information to be found on the traders' Telerate terminals. I constantly keyed in the pages for news and seemingly unrelated information, while the traders kept their attention glued to the bond pages. Years later I found myself on the other side of the screens as a product development manager based in the Tokyo office of a financial information company. In formal meetings with financial professionals, I constantly heard about the esoteric financial data required to do their jobs. But over beers and sushi, I was told that some of the most accessed pages on Reuters and Bloomberg terminals were actually sports news. It was fascinating to me that with all the powerful financial information at their fingertips, dealers followed the sports pages. The reason was obvious: these were primarily American, European, and Australian expatriates living in Tokyo, and at the time the only way to get scores from their home basketball, cricket, and rugby teams was on the terminals that were supposed to be used just for work.

It must have taken some very strong-willed right-brain product development people to push through a need for sports news. Yet I'd argue that adding sports news contributed more to Reuters and Bloomberg growth at the time than more coverage of pork belly futures or mortgage-backed securities would have.

Left-brainers dominate the top ranks of information companies. Need proof? Just count the numbers of finance and technology degrees and MBAs in the management pages of econtent company Web sites. How many liberal arts graduates do you see? Some, but they are greatly outnumbered. Now consider the users of information. As eloquently expressed by Mary Ellen Bates, an information industry observer, "One of the challenges of info pros has been to use the structured information-retrieving and -filtering tools, which really do require sequential, left-brained thinking, while simultaneously thinking creatively and intuitively about the entire spectrum of information sources and features, which requires right-brained analysis. It sort of feels like I'm trying to solve a quadratic equation while playing the piano."

To be sure, there are many information products for the more lateral thinking and visually oriented among us. Visualization products such as anacubis, context-sensitive search from companies such as TripleHop, graphing applications such as Big Charts, job-specific data visualization tools such Factiva's Insight products, and neat little features such as Amazon.com's "customers who bought this book also bought . . ." all help right-brain types make better sense of data. I'd say that these sorts of products and services will succeed as right-brain people gravitate to them for their information needs.

Our business needs more people who think right about content so we can better help people like Bates. As left-brain jobs such as programming and accounting shift overseas to low-wage countries, right-brain thinking leads to innovation. Note to HR executives and headhunters: Please remove the "MBA required" label from marketing jobs—you'll have a better candidate pool if you don't exclude right-brain individuals.