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an important phenomenon that challenges 
simple notions of information and management

on this page
interference - 
from light to 
other material
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Interference is a complex phenomenon that appears when you try to put two or more items of information together.

If I buy two newspapers, does that mean I get twice as much information? Of course not. And if an organization receives two different messages on the same subject from different sources, they may sometimes reinforce one another, sometimes cancel one another out, among other possibilities. This phenomenon is called interference.

Interference is widespread in many domains. Two or more managers, two or more regulations, two or more technical features (sometimes known as feature interaction).

In physics, interference between wave forms (such as light) is fairly well-understood. Feature interaction has been widely investigated for telecoms networks. But as far as I know, interference patterns in information and management have never been properly studied.

veryard projects - innovation for demanding change

Interference - From Light to Information

veryard projects > information management > interference > from light to information

When modern schoolchildren study physics, they are shown phenomena that would have astounded the great scientists of past centuries. Many of these phenomena involve the curious behaviour of light. In one simple experiment you make a pinhole in a card and measure how much light gets through the hole. Then you make another pinhole and measure again. Instead of getting twice as much light, as you might expect, you sometimes get no light at all, or lots more. In some cases, a carefully positioned pinhole may have no effect at all: it is as if it were not there. And even changing the size of the pinholes doesn’t always help. This phenomenon is known as interference.

Something analogous happens with the entry of information into a business organization. If we equate light with information, then we can think of each stream of input data as a pinhole. Adding pinholes, adding new data streams, may increase the amount of useful information available within the organization for making business decisions, but only if we somehow avoid the effects of interference. (There's a subtle but important difference between data and information here.)

This is a well-known phenomenon in business information systems, although there is little integration between theory and practice. The small number of academics who can use information theory to explain and predict the phenomenon have little contact with the large number of practitioners who hack their way through the jungle without quite knowing what they are doing.


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This page last updated on November 20th, 2001
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