Addressing Information Overload – A Steering Committee Forms

Although many believe this to be technology induced, the problem of information overload is not new.  Centuries ago, scholars bemoaned the problem of too many books and not enough time or memory to take it all in.  Scholars who wrote about the problem included Roger Bacon, Samuel Johnson, and Conrad Gesner, considered the father of the bibliography, who in 1545 in the Bibliotheca universalis warned of the “confusing and harmful abundance of books” and suggested reading strategies for coping with information overload.

This takes us to the beginning of this week.  20 researchers and corporate managers met for two full days in Redmond, Washington to begin to study modern day information overload, which some refer to as “infomania” or the “infoglut.”  The workshop was organized by Mary Czerwinski of Microsoft Research, Prof. Sheizaf Rafaeli of Haifa University, and Nathan Zeldes of Intel.  Attendees were invited based on their “proven track record” in studying and combating the problem.  The entire workshop was devoted to what was extraordinarily productive interaction (fulfilling the promises by Nathan Zeldes of keeping face-to-face time “relentlessly productive”), i.e. plenary group discussions and smaller round table sessions rather than formal presentations (there were none, no slide presentations either for that matter).

To reduce information overload during the event itself, the conference organizers created a wiki through which a lot of preliminaries were handled, including personal statements from attendees.  That allowed us to roll up our sleeves (metaphorically, since the Seattle area was in the midst of an ice storm and big chill) and get to work right away.

Attendees ranged from Gloria Mark, an associate professor at the University of California at Irvine, who studies how information technology impacts human behavior;  Max Christoff, an executive director in Morgan Stanley’s Information Technology department, who focuses on knowledge worker productivity issues; to Deva Hazarika, who founded a company, Clear Context, to build products that help knowledge workers use e-mail more effectively.

We started with an analysis of the problem, continued with a look at what companies and individuals are doing now to cope, what the impact of the problem is (some companies are estimating that the problem costs them billions of dollars in lost productivity and opportunity costs), and how the problem should be looked at going forward.

This was not just a one-time meeting.  The group’s activities will continue through the wiki, working groups that grow out of the main group, and future face-to-face meetings.  In part, I saw this as the beginning of a steering committee for addressing information overload in the knowledge economy.

After two days of continuous discussion, I’m on information overload myself.  It’s rare to attend a meeting where all of what is being said is so interesting and the discussions themselves are so participatory that e-mail and IM messages are only checked during breaks.

It will take me a bit of time to organize thoughts and conclusions from the event – but look for them in this space starting next week.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

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