Peter Drucker's definition of performance has resonated with me since I read his book Management earlier this year. I paraphrase it here:

Performance is the concentration of resources into a particular form at a particular time and place to achieve a particular result that satisfies a particular objective.

It occurred to me quickly that as a professional problem-solver, the resource most important to me to master how to concentrate effectively is information. As such, it was clear that I ought to articulate an understanding of its character.

Information Relates to Physical Stuff

It was first important to me to establish the relationship of information to physical stuff, and I understand that relationship to be logical and mathematical. Information is composed of symbols. These symbols can occupy any subset of the physical universe. They can be represented in any form or value or quantity or sequence. They can be arbitrarily large or small along any dimension. They can overlap to an arbitrary degree. They can become arbitrarily complex. The simplest symbol is the binary digit or bit, which is the difference that makes a difference.

Consisting of symbols, information is inherently digital. This means it is possible to transform information physically, logically or mathematically with no loss of integrity. This also enables it to be perfectly copied. Information can be decomposed into individual bits and reassembled at another time, potentially in another place, and composed from another medium. Each of these bits could just as easily be stored in one medium or travel along one channel as another. Some or all of the bits can be readily supplanted with copies. But in order to be meaningful, the information must be returned to a physically consistent state.

For the purpose of performance, then, information must be concentrated into this consistent state at a particular place and time. This ostensibly obvious condition is one I believe creative professionals often overlook.

Plasticity, Durability, Economy, Comprehension

As information is bound mathematically to the form of physical stuff, its behaviour depends on certain material properties of that stuff, depending on how it is encoded. Of course, this stuff could be anything or any collection thereof. For instance, it should be possible to use a kitchen junk drawer as an information storage device, encoding symbols into the positions of its contents. It would also be possible for people to pass messages to one another in this way. Such a system would be very private, but not very durable, as a good shake could destroy the information, or worse: mislead its users.

Information can transfer from medium to medium with wildly varying degrees of effort. To understand our coded junk drawer, one could simply glance at, or photograph it. However, to transcribe it into a message is potentially painstaking, and of course, one would have to know the code.

Those who design the hardware of information technology focus on fitting more information into a smaller space which is more durable, and moving more of it around in less time while consuming less energy. They have graduated from mechanical means to electricity and light, and are now exploring the information-processing properties of quantum mechanics and biological systems. Ongoing efforts exist as well to standardize the form of and meaning of various kinds of information, which is at least as political a process as it is technical.

In astronomical applications, it is entirely feasible that bits detected from radiation emanating from opposite ends of the observable universe can find themselves mere nanometres away from each other in adjacent transistors of a computer processor. The energy requirement at one end is the big bang itself, and the data have been in transit since the beginning of time. At the other end, the faintest electrical pulses flit about for billionths of a second.

Understanding this, we can say that to move information into the direction of greater plasticity, durability and common formats is conducive to performance. Smaller, cheaper, lighter, faster forms are equally conducive, but it is worth noting that to perform, they need only to be small, cheap, light or fast enough. This process need not happen all at once — it can be incremental. We can further encode the incremental transformation of information into appropriate tools.

Information Cannot be Substituted

Information is completely infungible, meaning that we cannot meaningfully substitute one bit of information for another unless they are copies of the same bit. Much like a jigsaw puzzle with a missing piece, it typically does not serve us to rob another one unless it is identical to the original.

In spite of this property, there is a subtlety that merits further exploration. It is indeed possible to generate identical information using different data, much like how we can arrive at identical results using different mathematical expressions. The distinguishing feature between data and information is that only the latter is relevant and meaningful. It is important to recognize, however, that what is a mere datum in one context is information in another, and vice versa. Likewise, information is composed of at least one datum.

Copied information is only trustworthy if its integrity can be confirmed. That is, if we copy information and move it away from the original without including some external method of verifying its consistency, our only method of ensuring nothing had changed is to return with the copy to the site of the original information and compare the two. This tactic is apt to significantly compromise performance, and as such it is wise to proactively ensure the integrity of all copied information. It is equally wise to accept no substitutes.

Information is a Sign of Life

Information is inextricably connected to life. Life itself can be understood as the ongoing processing of information. As living things, we can use information to adapt dynamically to our environments, govern our use of resources and ultimately improve our probability of success.

It follows then that other living things are excellent sources of information. We can collect this information directly from other living things when they communicate to us, or we can investigate the evidence they leave behind — potentially long after the individual has died.

As people, we are often interested in the information held by other people. It is frequently the most relevant to our everyday lives and strategic aspirations. A person can either divulge information by choice or as a byproduct of his or her actions. If a person's mind is the only place certain information can be found, we must then be successfully persuasive if we want it, or go searching for a leak.

When other people communicate to us, they do so at their own expense, however small that may be. As such, it is important that they perceive value in communicating, either intrinsically or through some form of reward, which could be equally trivial, such as politely thanking them for their cooperation.

Therefore, to perform through the concentration of information coming from people, it is important to have the means available to persuade them, not the least of which is manners.


Oh, and remember to make frequent back-ups.