» Archive for the 'Information Overload' Category

Enjoy It While It Lasts: E-mail Overload to Resume Next Week

Thursday, August 30th, 2012 by David Goldes

Traffic resumes next week

In the last week of August, nothing seems to get done.  E-mail goes unanswered, meetings are rescheduled, even my local favorite coffee shop is empty as people sneak away for their vacations.

Indeed, last week, Jonathan Spira’s commentary in this space was a mere 83 words long as he rushed out for a holiday trip.

I enjoy this time of year, but therein lies the rub.  Starting next week, all those same people will be back at work and back in their inboxes, refreshed and flush with a sense of false urgency.

But do we really need to bring those stress levels back to normal?

While you think about it, I’m outta here…

David M. Goldes is the president of Basex.

Limits on Recording Everything: Is the Genie Already Out of the Bottle?

Friday, August 17th, 2012 by Jonathan Spira

Ted Nelson, the inventor of hypertext, famously recorded numerous moments of his life on tape recordings, video, notepads, and the like.  Nelson, whose work in hypertext dates back to the early 1960s and coined the term, was not only ahead of his time in this respect but also in terms of documenting his own life (he claimed that his reason for doing so was his poor memory).

An article in the New York Times this past week called my attention to a white paper by John Villasenor, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and electrical engineer by trade, entitled Recording Everything: Digital Storage as an Enabler of Authoritarian Governments.

While Mr. Villasenor’s point-of-departure relates to the potential for governmental abuse, I was far more interested in the fact that he quantified what I had long suspected, namely that the cost of storage has dropped to the point where anything and everything can be recorded.

The fact that we can is interesting.  But this begs the question, should we?

Today, most individuals generate a vast amount of information each day.  Starting with our conversations and meetings, we move onto e-mail, text messages, social networks, website visits, and cameras.  Our activities, using a credit card, placing a phone call, or sending a text, create additional information (and record our location) on an ongoing basis.

Imagine if all of this were recorded centrally.

Mr. Villasenor estimates that merely storing the audio from a typical knowledge worker’s phone calls throughout a year would require 3.3 gigabytes and cost a mere 17 cents.  That figure, he points out, will drop to two cents by 2015.

Given his focus on authoritarian regimes, he points out that it would cost just $2.5 million to store one year’s worth of phone calls from every person above the age of 14 in Syria (which has a population of 15 million people over the age of 14).  While most of our readers are not planning to record the conversations of their fellow citizens, the $2.5 million figure is mind-numbingly low.

Clearly, things will not end with simply storing the data.  The question is what happens to the data afterwards.  We need to think of all the ramifications that will be the outcome of gathering it, including security and privacy.  Despite their limitations, today’s search tools are more than capable of finding multiple needles in haystacks of recordings.  The question that intrigues me, however, is, what will the impact on an already overloaded society be if and when we start to record our every movement.

Right now, doing so is a curiosity, something an eccentric such as Ted Nelson or a researcher at MIT can do but most mainstream knowledge workers couldn’t and wouldn’t.

There are numerous other issues here besides Information Overload, most prominent among them privacy and government overreach.  At the moment, since we’re at the very beginnings of gathering information on such a massive scale, society does not yet perceive this as a problem.  However, once we really start the ball rolling, we’ll most likely find that it’s impossible to put the genie back in the bottle.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex and author of Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization.

(Photo: Hannes Grobe)

Overloaded 2012 – An IORG Event

Wednesday, January 18th, 2012 by Cody Burke

On Feb. 25, in San Francisco, the Information Overload Research Group will host “Overloaded 2012″, a gathering of people from a diversity of domains such as business, academia, technology, journalism, psychology, and research, committed to the battle against information overload. We’ve intentionally decided to make this an “un-conference”, a more informal and intimate event than a full blown conference, where the focus will be on creating a lively dialog, crossing organizational and domain boundaries, and developing new insight into the state of information overload as well as the latest solutions.
In my experience, getting professional colleagues who usually interact remotely into one physical room liberates incredible energy. Ideas flow, knowledge is shared, innovative thinking is triggered, collaborations are born, friendships are cemented… in fact, IORG itself was born in the aftermath of such a gathering a few years ago. I look forward to attending this day in San Francisco with much pleasant anticipation!

If you share our passion, please join us there! Reserve your place by registering here. We look forward to meeting you in what promises to be a productive, interesting and (not least) fun coming together of like minds.

Nathan Zeldes is the president of the Information Overload Research Group.

Information Overload, Basex:TechWatch, and Mission Creep

Thursday, November 3rd, 2011 by Jonathan Spira

Since Basex:TechWatch was founded in 1997, its mission has been to present a weekly digest of news and information on topics and offerings relating to knowledge sharing and collaboration.

Over the past 14 years, the amount of stuff (the only word that really describes it) that could conceivably fall into these categories has expanded exponentially.  As a result, Basex:TechWatch became somewhat bloated and almost doubled in size.

Given our increased focus on the problem of Information Overload in recent years, we have decided to put Basex:TechWatch on a diet of sorts.  We will do this by sharpening our focus around knowledge sharing and collaboration with an eye towards tools that could help knowledge workers deal in a better manner with the burden of too much information.

An example of this is the dramatic increase in the number of mobile devices such as smartphones that seem to come onto the market each week.  Since the difference between many of these devices is minimal, we have reduced our coverage accordingly and will only include those which we feel are innovative and relevant to the topic at hand.

This won’t happen overnight but we do think you’ll find the new, slimmed-down Basex:TechWatch to be more on topic and even more useful in providing you with a quick overview of new products, offerings, services, and updates that have been announced in the preceding week.

We’ll continue to work to fine tune Basex:TechWatch, and if you have any suggestions, please feel free to e-mail us at btwsuggest@basex.com.

Click here if you would like to sign up for a free subscription to  Basex:TechWatch.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex and author of Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization.

Thoughts From Information Overload Awareness Day 2011

Wednesday, October 26th, 2011 by Jonathan Spira

Lower the Overload, send less e-mail

Information Overload Awareness Day (IOAD) continued the dialog I sought to begin three years ago with the first IOAD.

To be candid, for the past few months, I’ve been a bit overloaded as have my colleagues at Basex and we were considering on moving IOAD to December.

We were therefore surprised a few weeks ago when we noticed articles announcing that Information Overload Awareness Day 2011 would be on October 20 once again.  A phone conversation I had with Marsha Egan, who runs the aptly named InBoxDetox.com and has supported IOAD all three years, was enlightening to say the least.  It’s ironic, Marsha pointed out, that we are so overloaded that we couldn’t even turn off IOAD.

I had created IOAD but by year three, it had taken on a life of its own.

To “celebrate” IOAD, I asked knowledge workers around the world to send 10% fewer e-mail messages each day.  E-mail by itself is just one manifestation of Information Overload but it may well be the poster child.  I was pleased to see countless bloggers and journalists pick up the call this year and ask their readers to Lower the Overload by sending fewer electronic missives.

I’ve done a lot of speaking about Information Overload in the past few months and I just returned from Scottsdale, Arizona, where I spoke at a meeting of the Institute for Information Infrastructure Protection.  The meeting specifically addressed Cybersecurity Through A Behavioral Lens and I was asked to speak about Information Overload.

It was a gratifying talk in part because the Q&A that followed almost didn’t end (it eventually had to end because many of the participants had flown out that same day and were still on east coast time and my keynote followed the dinner hour) and in part because the attendees were some of the leading thinkers in the field.  As it turned out, the behavioral observations my colleagues and I were making about Information Overload had great applicability to cybersecurity issues and the questions and discussion largely centered on building a bridge between the two disciplines.

It turns out that even cybersecurity experts and academicians in this field are not immune to the problems of Information Overload and this group in particular related to the story told to me by Col. Peter Marksteiner of the rogue e-mail that was forwarded and forwarded until it brought down the e-mail servers at Maxwell Air Force Base – during a cybersecurity event there in June 2008.

If you haven’t yet started to Lower the Overload, you can still take stock of your own information habits and take the first step by sending fewer e-mail messages to fewer recipients.  If we all do this, it will make a difference.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex and author of Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization.

Happy Information Overload Awareness Day

Thursday, October 20th, 2011 by Jonathan Spira

Where do I even start...

Today is the third annual Information Overload Awareness Day (some media outlets have shortened this to Information Overload Day, which in my view gives it an entirely different spin).

To “celebrate,”  we at Basex invite each and every one of you to Lower the Overload starting now.

Some may ask, why do we need an Information Overload Awareness Day?  We need it because we don’t have days that are free from the problem.  Our research shows that only 5% of the knowledge workers’ day is available for thought and reflection.  The largest single block of time in the average day (25%) is spent dealing with Information Overload-related issues, such as interruptions, excessive e-mails, and failed searches.

We need Information Overload Awareness Day because the problem is getting worse, not better.  For us to even begin to regain our lost productivity, scattered focus, and decimated work/life balance, the first thing that must happen is for every one of us to acknowledge the problem, and then take action.

We need Information Overload Awareness Day because Information Overload is dulling our senses and limiting our ability to absorb more in-depth and complex thoughts and content.

Last year, we asked all knowledge workers to attempt to send 10% fewer e-mail messages.  This year, we ask knowledge workers to reaffirm that pledge.  If you have lapsed, please try again. If you’ve succeeded, try to commit to further reducing the quantity of e-mail you send.

We’ve made great progress in raising awareness of Information Overload’s impact.  My book Overload!: How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization was published a few months ago.  It outlines the problem of Information Overload and shows us how we all can make a difference through our individual actions.

We’ve also expanded the conversation to include a variety of great thinkers and writers.  In June, in an online roundtable sponsored by the Information Overload Research Group, we brought together Dave Crenshaw (The Myth of Multitasking), Daniel Forrester (Consider), Maggie Jackson (Distracted), and William Powers (Hamlet’s BlackBerry).

Just recently, I spoke at Google’s headquarters (talk about being inside the lion’s den) to Google employees about the problem (yes, they have it there too) and I’ve been speaking at conferences and meetings almost on a weekly basis (next Tuesday, I’ll be in Philadelphia speaking at a Wharton event).

Organizations that include Google, the Churchill Club, Dow Jones, and Berkeley University invited me to speak and join in Information Overload-focused events that have helped spread the word and raise awareness like never before.

Information Overload cost theU.S.economy $997 billion in 2010 – and that figure continues to grow as we approach 2012.

Help Lower the Overload (our slogan for Information Overload Awareness Day) on Thursday and beyond. Remember, even without your knowing it, your actions impact others so do what you can. Remember, we are all in this together.

People frequently ask me if there is an easy fix for Information Overload, a corporate pill as it were.  While such a thing does not exist, I do know that simply raising awareness of the problem and its ramifications does help begin to reduce the amount of overload we face.  In addition, each of us can and should assume a bit of personal responsibility for the problem and take the appropriate steps to mitigate it.

I have.


Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex and author of Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization.

October 20 is Information Overload Awareness Day – Lower the Overload

Monday, October 17th, 2011 by Jonathan Spira

Ready, set, ...

On Thursday October 20, knowledge workers around the world will mark the third annual Information Overload Awareness Day.  The theme is “Lower the Overload.”  The holiday/observance is our attempt to raise awareness of the crippling burden that Information Overload places on all of us.  Thanks to the vast amount of information that we all face on a daily basis, individual knowledge workers, teams, and entire organizations suffer diminished productivity and the loss of the ability to make sound decisions, process information, and prioritize tasks.

Information Overload Awareness Day is an opportunity for knowledge workers and organizations to take stock of the impact that this serious problem is having on their productivity and work life balance, not to mention on their organizations’ bottom line.

One thing we have discovered as we have researched Information Overload is how easy it is to take steps to lessen its impact by simply raising awareness of the problem.  Information Overload Awareness Day is in part a day to step back and contemplate how our individual actions contribute to the problem.

On Thursday, we will ask everyone to start by sending 10% fewer e-mail messages (this includes copying fewer people on the e-mail you do send).

Two simple statistics from my book Overload! how Too Much Information Is Hazadous To Your Organization explain why this is important:

- Reading and processing just 100 e-mail messages can occupy over half of a worker’s day.

- For every 100 people who are unnecessarily copied on an e-mail, eight hours are lost.

In addition, look at how you use and share information and you may see opportunities to make processes more efficient as well as take action to improve your own information habits, such as in the area of search.

Information Overload cost the U.S.economy $997 billion in 2010 – and that figure will increase for 2011.

Help Lower the Overload (our slogan for Information Overload Awareness Day) on Thursday and beyond.   Remember, even without your knowing it, your actions impact others so do what you can.  Remember, we are all in this together.

Information, Information, Everywhere… But Not A Lot Of Good It Does

Thursday, September 29th, 2011 by Jonathan Spira

But where is the RIGHT information?

This essay is being written after numerous and somewhat frustrating encounters with the latest information technology.  One would think that we’ve reached a point where systems and computers should work flawlessly but that is less and less the case every day.

On the one hand, the Information Revolution of the late 20th century has resulted in an anywhere, anytime information society that has become accustomed to boundless gobs of information on demand.

On the other hand, no one has said that the stuff works.

From a technical standpoint, the advent of true ubiquitous computing (or at least, state-of-the-art ca. 2011) has markedly changed our attitude towards and interactions with information.  Our constant exposure to information leads us to have the expectation that it will be shared across systems, accurately and quickly.  If Facebook and Google can keep track of everything we are reading, sharing, and writing while we surf the Web, surely everyone else can too, right?

Unfortunately, information does not always get to where it needs to be.  I’ll use my recent experience with an airline as an example.   Airlines are known to be leaders in IT; American Airlines introduced the first ever computer reservation system, Sabre, in 1960.  At the time it was one of the largest and most successful mainframe deployments ever.

Today, despite tremendous advances in technology over the course of 50 years, information often fails us.  Calls to customer service representatives at call centers asking the same or similar questions yield widely disparate answers, despite the fact that the agent is being guided by the system.

My own experiences in the past week relating to several different issues with an airline, including an error that was apparently computer generated as well as misinformation that was repeated by several agents almost verbatim, show me that we have a long way to go.

It won’t surprise you to learn that fixing these problems took multiple phone calls and e-mail messages and wasted hours of time both on my part and on the part of the call center agents.

We used to say that computers don’t make mistakes, but rather that the people who write the programs do.  I believe that this belief has become somewhat quaint if not obsolete.  While we are far from enjoying true artificial intelligence where machines actually think and respond on their own, we are at a point where autonomic or self-healing systems do evolve on their own, and sometimes seem to add in mistakes just to keep things interesting.

We want the right information on demand, without delay, without error.   As we add in more information, more systems, and more ways of getting information, what we end up with is something very different.


Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex and author of Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization.

Bow-Ties and Information Overload

Thursday, September 15th, 2011 by Cody Burke

Bow-ties: classy and helpful for understanding Information Overload

Information Overload is something that most knowledge workers understand intuitively.  We all know what it feels like to stare at an overflowing inbox not unlike a deer in headlights, or to sit at your desk wracking your brain trying to remember the location of an important bit of information.

Unfortunately, although it is easy to recall the feeling of Information Overload, visualizing and conceptualizing it is much more difficult.  We get hung up in definitions, specific technologies, and different approaches to dealing with the problem, and as a result, often fail to see what the problem looks like on a simplified, macro level.  We understand what Information Overload is, but fail to see the forest for the trees.

To help visualize the complex information flows that every knowledge worker and every organization must navigate, I often use the metaphor of a bow-tie.  This helps me to understand and conceptualize Information Overload, and it may be helpful to you as well.  To start, simply picture the shape of a bow-tie (yes, the fancy one that goes around the neck).

On the left side of the bow-tie is the complex incoming information in the form of communications, news and reports, meetings, and any other information input, no matter how small.  This flow includes sources both internal and external to the organization that are filtered down and processed in the middle of the bow-tie, the knot.  The knot is where the complex flow of information is reduced, simplified, and digested so that it can be used to produce complex outcomes on the other side of the knot.  The right side of the bow-tie is where the structured and digested information is applied to business problems and used to create profit and gain advantage.

The bow-tie is a powerful model because it allows for complex inputs to be reduced to manageable blocks that are then used to drive complex outcomes.  The problem is that the knot of the bow-tie, and by extension the organization, team, or individual knowledge worker, is vulnerable to becoming overloaded.  If the knot fails and is overwhelmed by the incoming information on the left side, then the important outcomes being produced on the right side will suffer.

For example, imagine a knowledge worker (sitting in the middle, at the knot) who is dealing with too much information in the form of extremely high numbers of search results (the incoming information on the left-hand side of the bow-tie).  The combination of his inadequate search tools and techniques leads him to becoming overwhelmed.  As a result, he is not able to find the information he is looking for, and he moves forward with his project using sub-standard information.  The project (the output on the right-hand side of the bow-tie) ends up having to be redone and reviewed many more times than necessary because of the errors.  If the problem at the knot could have been avoided, the significant time and effort that was spent fixing the errors would have been saved.

On a group level, a sales team that is receiving an overwhelming amount of e-mail will be unable to effectively process the incoming information, leading to the team missing promising sales leads.  The team’s failure to maximize the information they are receiving leads to the outputs that are produced being not up-to-par, in this case resulting in lower sales.  The problem in this case is the team’s ability to process the high volume of e-mail effectively; resolving that pain point would improve the output and drive to higher sales.

Now, I don’t expect anyone to start wearing bow-ties because of this Information Overload visualization technique (although they are very stylish and perhaps underused).  Nonetheless, applying this metaphor to areas where Information Overload is harming productivity and impacting an organization’s bottom line may help to understand the problem and focus efforts to address it.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.  He can be reached at cburke@basex.com

Automaticity: The Impact of Distractions on Work and Driving

Wednesday, September 7th, 2011 by Jonathan Spira

Are we there yet?

The ability to do one thing on autopilot while doing something else is referred to as automaticity. While experienced drivers can hold conversations and listen to the radio while driving, novice drivers cannot. Indeed, many new drivers turn off the radio and ask passengers not to talk to them. They also don’t make phone calls or try to send text messages.

Automaticity does not mean that distractions – while driving or otherwise – do not have an impact. Brain scans by neuroscientists studying this issue have shown that the brain has difficulty paying attention to sights and sounds at the same time. If the brain is focused on a visual task, its ability to handle an auditory task decreases markedly, and vice versa.

In the course of writing my book Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization, I attempted to determine the impact of distractions and replicated an experiment that NPR had conducted a few years earlier. I played the piano.

Playing the piano involves a similar amount of hand-to-eye coordination as well as coordination between hands and feet (for pedals, in both cases). Playing the piano also has a similar amount of automaticity as driving. I have played the piano since I was five years old and I have been driving since the age of 16. Even when I am out of practice, I can still sit down and play many of the Beethoven Sonatas I memorized for performances years earlier.

Essentially, I played the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata and had a friend ask me increasingly complex questions. Being asked simple arithmetic questions threw off my tempo completely. It was impossible to play Beethoven’s intricate arpeggios and do simple arithmetic simultaneously.

Recently, I came across a video prepared by Farmers Insurance as part of its University of Farmers online efforts. Hosted by Prof. Nathaniel Burke, who is portrayed by actor J.K Simmons, the Distracted Driving video cites some statistics (distracted driving “accounts for 25% of car crashes”) and some root causes (“music, cellphones, food”). It shows a man driving while an increasing number of distractions appear, including a boom box located directly behind the driver’s head, a drink being spilled on the driver, a few people poking the driver with long sticks, and a mobile phone.

After a man wearing a Hawaiian shirt jumps into the car and starts dancing in his seat, the car (not unsurprisingly) crashes.

While most drivers don’t face this number of distractions on a regular basis, the video (which is 30 seconds in length) does an excellent job of driving home the point that, simply put, distractions distract. Given that a typical knowledge worker may be subject to almost as many distractions while at his desk as the Farmers Insurance driver faces in the video, it’s amazing we’re able to get any work done at all.