A New Measure of Information Overload – In Feet

It was right in front of me but I never noticed it until an in-depth conversation with a very well-informed CEO of a major auto maker earlier this week: how to measure Information Overload in a meaningful way.

How much information received today, dear?

How much information received today, dear?

“We send our dealerships,” the CEO told me, “about a foot or so of information every day.  There’s no way anyone can digest all of it.”  How did he measure this? The company printed out every piece of paper that goes out to the many dealerships around the country and that’s how high the average stack was.

This reminded me of an experiment the EDP (electronic data processing) manager, Dave Stemmer, tried at the company where my father was CEO, probably around 25 years ago (when IT departments were still called EDP departments).  He noticed that the department printed out dozens and dozens of reports a day (and the reports were on the green striped computer paper in binders) and wondered how many were actually being read.  So he stopped printing the reports and waited for the phone to ring with someone requesting them.  Apparently only 10% of the reports were re-requested so the waste in computer time (when this was a valuable commodity) and paper was huge.

Stemmer’s experiment, while less focused at the problem of Information Overload, does demonstrate man’s proclivity in creating too much information (or written versions of that information) that will go unused.

In the case of our auto maker, the amount of information was a wake-up call and the company is not only looking to reduce the amount of information sent to its dealerships but also looking to find ways of making that information more useful and relevant.

We know from our research here that the cost of Information Overload is great and that the actions of individual knowledge workers in terms of what they send to colleagues and correspondents can exacerbate an already bad situation.  Looking at it from a “how much does our organization send out en masse to individuals and partners” perspective is another way of trying to get not only a fix on the costs but also a good way of finding ways in which a few feet of Information Overload can be eliminated.

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

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