Sunday, September 02, 2012

Information Pyramids: Actionable Information

Information Pyramids are a concept that Ron Weisenburger invented in 2002 when he was working with forage and beef cattle researchers in Agriculture Canada and the western provinces in Canada.

This article explains information architecture design for websites that need to guide customers to best information, current best practice and detailed information in a way that does not result in information glut and over-reliance on search. and are two websites that are structured on Information pyramids.  

Ron's challenge was that some of the researchers were about to retire. Concerned about keeping really good information visible for ranchers and cow-calf producers in the Canadian western prairies, the researchers wanted a website that summarized the best information they had on different issues on growing grass and hay and raising beef cows and calves.

As the Chief Knowledge Officer for Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development, Ron Weisenburger's invention was to propose an information architecture that featured three layers of information on the website.

Layer 1, the top of the information pyramid, is the knowledge nugget or knowledge summary. It is a checklist of issues are immediately relevant to current circumstances. They are the issues a well-informed customer should be paying attention to.  The knowledge summary is actionable information because the community of experts who produce them summarize in a sentence these key actions as:
  • What You Should Do
  • What You Should Avoid
  • What is Coming Over the Horizon
I contend that your value to your organization and your clients is realized when  you regularly produce knowledge summaries that clearly cover these three topics. If you don't, why are you an expert and why would anybody care what you do?

The knowledge summary is a checklist of actionable information

Knowledge summaries are at the core of good advice. And like good advice, they have a "Best Before" date stamp on them. Circumstances change and so should the knowledge summary. You usually don't see knowledge summaries written down (I will say more than I can write down). That makes them even more valuable when they are and when they are regularly updated to stay current with changing circumstances.

Ron Weisenburger's vision was that in the knowledge summary, you could click on a topic you should be paying attention to and get directed to Layer 2, the factsheet that describes "How To" do the current good practice you need to learn more about (or refresh your memory on).

 The factsheet on "How To"

The 3 to 5 page factsheet, that in layman's language explains and illustrates (pictures and graphics are important) what to do step by step, takes a community of experts to develop. It becomes a best practice guide. The most efficient way to develop checklists and factsheets is have someone write the strawdog (it will be about 80% right) and then have the community edit the draft. You will see communities of practitioners (CoPs) do this in wikis. The key is to tailor the factsheet to the level and tools that the target audience uses. With the emergence of mobile devices, shrinking good practice guides down to photos, illustrations and short text makes for in-field guides that reside on the hip and are more accessible than printed guides. Good practices guides are more static than checklists. They tend to have a lifetime of 3 to 5 years before changes in technology or research require updating.

The Details, Layer 3, presents the research articles, manuals, reports and regulatory instructions that are judged most useful by the community of experts. Information pyramids do not cover all the information on a topic, just the most relevant, robustly useful and foundational to the topic. Links from the How To factsheet bring the customer to this level if they need the detailed step by step instruction, the background research that supports the practice or the regulatory details that shape the current good practice.

The Details are the manual, research article, research report or regulatory instructions, standards and codes of practice.

Ron Weisenberger's information pyramid was a revolutionary concept in delivering really good information in a small footprint. The links allow a user to journey down to the material he/she is unfamiliar with. It also provides the opportunity to remind users to pay attention to fundamentals or key learnings they may have forgotten.

A second advantage of information pyramids is that they don't have to deliver all the information on the website. Really good detailed information can reside on other websites (e.g. factsheets or the details (reports, manuals, regulations)) and the information pyramid just links to to that information.

Today, an expert's tweet can be the one sentence line that highlights a currently relevant checklist topic. The blog can be the short introduction to the How To factsheet. And the Details can reside wherever the community of practitioners find access the easiest. Information pyramids are a different twist on the concept of news agregators. The toughest task is getting a community of practitioners to regularly review and update the checklist of currently relevant "Things to Do" today and "Things to Watch Out For".

The concept of information pyramids is introduced at
in their section "About". Information pyramids also are a key structural element in the Alberta Land-use Knowledge Network's website. The article, "Information Pyramids, Presenting Really Good Information to You" on is more detailed on how to construct information pyramids.

At the core of this is a community of practitioners who take on the task of constructing the information pyramid and then weeding and maintaining it. Without their attention, the checklists quickly become out of date. Knowledge requires the active participation of knowledgeable practitioners.

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