Information Overload – It Isn’t Just Too Much E-mail

One might assume that pinpointing the sources of Information Overload is relatively black and white, i.e. it’s just too much e-mail. In reality, nothing could be farther from the truth.

The problem of Information Overload is multifaceted and impacts each and every organization whether top executives and managers are aware of it or not.  In addition to e-mail, Information Overload stems from the proliferation of content, growing use of social networking tools, unnecessary interruptions in the workplace, failed searches, new technologies that compete for the worker’s attention, and improved and ubiquitous connectivity (making workers available anytime regardless of their location).  Information Overload is harmful to employees in a variety of ways as it lowers comprehension and concentration levels and adversely impacts work-life balance.  Since almost no one is immune from the effects of this problem, when one looks at it from an organizational point-of-view, hundreds of thousands of hours are lost at a typical organization, representing as much as 25% of the work day.

So what else besides e-mail overload is at issue here?  Here’s a quick rundown.

- Content
We have created billions of pictures, documents, videos, podcasts, blog posts, and tweets, yet if these remain unmanaged it will be impossible for anyone to make sense out of any of this content because we have no mechanism to separate the important from the mundane.  Going forward, we face a monumental paradox.  On the one hand, we have to ensure that what is important is somehow preserved.  If we don’t preserve it, we are doing a disservice to generations to come; they won’t be able to learn from our mistakes as well as from the great breakthroughs and discoveries that have occurred.  On the other hand, we are creating so much information that may or may not be important, that we routinely keep everything.  If we continue along this path, which we will most certainly do, there is no question that we will require far superior filtering tools to manage that information.

- Social Networking
For better or worse, millions of people use a variety of social networking tools to inform their friends – and the world at large – about their activities, thoughts, and observations, ranging down to the mundane and the absurd.  Not only are people busily engaged in creating such content but each individual’s output may ultimately be received by dozens if not thousands of friends, acquaintances, or curious bystanders.  Just do the math.

- Interruptions
We’ve covered this topic many times ( but our prime target is unnecessary interruptions and the recovery time (the time it takes the worker to get back to where he was) each interruption causes, typically 10-20 times the duration of the interruption itself.  It only takes a few such interruptions for a knowledge worker to lose an hour of his day.

- Searches
50% of all searches fail and we know about the failure.  What isn’t generally recognized is something that comes out of our research, namely that 50% of the searches you think succeeded failed, but the person doing the search didn’t realize it.  As a result, that person uses information that is perhaps out of date or incorrect or just not the right data.  This has a cascading effect that further propagates the incorrect information.

- New technologies
We crave shiny new technology toys, those devices that beep and flash for our attention, as well as shiny new software.  Each noise they emit takes us away from other work and propels us further down Distraction Road.  It’s a wonder we get any work done at all.  Even tools that have become part of the knowledge workers’ standard toolkit can be misused.  Examples here include e-mail (overuse of the reply-to-all function, gratuitous thank you notes, etc.) and instant messaging (sending an instant message to someone to see if he has received an e-mail).

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

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