Information Overload Now $997 Billion: What Has Changed?

Over the past few years, we’ve surveyed and interviewed several thousand knowledge workers on the granular details of how they spend their work days, issues such as document management practices, and how they are impacted by Information Overload.

What we learn constantly points in new directions and challenges us to revisit past assumptions and conclusions that we have made.  The pursuit of knowledge is not always linear with waypoints set in stone; rather, it is iterative and cyclical, with each new revelation necessitating a look back at previous conclusions to ensure that they have not been upended by new data.

In December of 2008, we announced that Information Overload was costing the U.S. economy $900 billion per year.  We arrived at that figure via an exhaustive process of categorizing occupations recognized by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which, despite the fact that it has cataloged over 770 occupations, do not have a separate indication for who is a knowledge worker.

Originally, we created four groups or overlay categories (categories that transcend multiple BLS job classifications).  These were Highly Skilled workers, Skilled workers, Single-Skilled workers, and Unskilled workers.

Highly Skilled workers are those who possess multiple skills with a high level of independent thought and action, included are those in management roles, teachers, doctors, scientists, engineers, pilots, and many more.  Skilled workers are those who possess multiple skills with some level of independent though and action, including medical assistants, media and communications workers, legal aids, and many others.  In our original analysis, we considered only these two groups to be knowledge workers.

Single Skilled workers are those proficient in a single skill, with very little need for independent thought and action, while Unskilled workers are those who engage in manual labor or repetitive tasks with no need for independent thought or action, such as dishwashers, cashiers, and laborers.

In the ensuing two years, our ongoing research proved the Single-Skilled worker category to be problematic.  BLS classifications can be confusing and we studied and reviewed all of the BLS classifications that went into this category.  At the end of the day, we made a significant revision, namely to refine the Single-Skilled worker category and add an additional category, Semi-Skilled workers.

The Single-Skilled worker category now includes many lower-level knowledge workers, such as technicians, telemarketers, and clerical workers.  The Semi-Skilled category encompasses occupations such as security guards, fast food cooks, and tree trimmers.

This impacts multiple areas but two in particular.  First, the total number of knowledge workers in the U.S is 78.6 million (our previous categorization fixed it at 65 million).  As a result, because we have to account for the amount of Information Overload the Single-Skilled knowledge workers encounter, the cost of Information Overload to the U.S. economy is actually $997 billion, an increase of nearly 11% from our previous figure.

Of course, $997 billion is still a conservative estimate, and reflects our research findings of the past decade that indicate knowledge workers lose ca. 25% of their day to Information Overload related problems such as e-mail overload and unnecessary interruptions.  While the refinement of our knowledge worker taxonomy expanded our definition of knowledge workers as well as our count of the population, what is more significant is that the new figures demonstrate that very few people are completely immune to this problem.

In the meantime, we are continuing to refine and improve our understanding of how Information Overload impacts you.   You can help us on this mission by taking our latest survey.

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

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