There was a time when we used to be thrilled at the ease and convenience with which we could communicate through email, or google anything and have multiple pages of search results show up. But an overload of information is not always a good thing. Jonathan B. Spira, 50, founding member of the US-based Information Overload Research Group, points out that typically, a knowledge worker today receives around 91 email messages per day, most of which are not relevant to his work. The amount of time and effort spent in skimming through that sea of extraneous detail to find relevant information forms the premise of Spira’s book, Overload! How Too Much Information is Hazardous to Your Organization.
Spira is also the CEO and chief analyst of Basex, a New York-based research firm focusing on the issues companies face in a knowledge economy. He has previously authored Managing the Knowledge Workforce: Understanding the Information Revolution that’s Changing the Business World and co-authored The History of Photography: As Seen Through the Spira Collection. In an email interview, he talks about the downside of too much information and how to deal with its overload. Edited excerpts:
Overload—How Too Much Information is Hazardous to Your Organization: Wiley India, 260 pages, $45 (around Rs 2,265).
Briefly tell us what information overload is and how it is a bad thing.
Information overload describes an excess of information that results in the loss of ability to make decisions, process information, and prioritize tasks. For decades, our goal was to build an information society but that did not come without certain risks. As we developed new technologies that have allowed us to push more information to more people, sometimes with just a few keystrokes, we opened the floodgates. Now it’s too late to pull back but we need to take the appropriate steps to lessen the harmful effects of information overload. It causes people to lose their ability to manage thoughts and ideas, contemplate, and even reason and think. It has high financial cost as well. In 2010, information overload cost the US economy $997 billion (or Rs 50 trillion; their own research). And that number is only going up.
Is the lack of convenient and intelligent office equipment/software a reason why so much time gets wasted or is it really information overload?
It’s both but it’s far more complicated than that. The sheer amount of information that is created and distributed overwhelms recipients and few software tools, if any, are up to the task of supporting the knowledge worker here. The knowledge worker is, therefore, on his own and has to try to use the existing tools as best as he can. This results in a situation where important information is often missed and incorrect information will be inadvertently used.
You suggest that information overload harms our analysis and decision-making faculties. But isn’t information supposed to help us make a more “informed” choice. Explain this conflict.
Information overload has made it in many cases virtually impossible to ensure that knowledge workers get the right information to do their jobs, innovate, analyse, and make decisions. If knowledge workers were able to immediately get the “right” information at all times, there would be no problem. But we simply don’t have the tools that ensure we can do this. In fact, my research has discovered that knowledge workers unknowingly get and use the wrong information 50% of the time when they perform a search and believe they got the correct answer or information.
Be careful: You may get it wrong 50% of the time.
What would be your easy, pragmatic advice to deal with information overload at workplaces?
• Read incoming email messages carefully. Don’t assume the subject adequately explains the message and don’t assume that the sender didn’t bury the most important information in the second paragraph from the bottom. Our research shows that most knowledge workers only read the first paragraph of any given email.
• Read outbound email messages carefully. Don’t combine unrelated topics in one message. Make sure the subject line explains the contents clearly. Use an introductory paragraph to explain what the email will cover, if there is more than one item.
• Think carefully when addressing emails. Many people follow the “CYA” principle and send to far more people than would be necessary. Remember, for every 100 people who are unnecessarily copied on email, 8 hours are lost.
• Maintain my correct status on IM (instant messenger) and monitor others’ before contacting. If you unnecessarily interrupt someone who is deep in concentration, it could take quite a while for your victim to return to where he was and recollect his thoughts—if he doesn’t simply forget to return at all.
• Argue. Learn how you can dramatically improve search results by using a few “arguments” such as “and”, “or”, and “near”.
Search engines like Google have revolutionized the way we work. Do you see a loophole in such keyword searches?
I don’t know if I see a loophole but I do see problems in this area. Typical keyword searches return correct result sets, meaning a list of sources that meets the search criteria. Unfortunately, searches typically don’t return correct answers, you must do that part of the work yourself by combing through the result set. Not only is this time-consuming, but the process of sorting through the search results opens up the possibility of ending up selecting and using the wrong information.
Social networking, blogging and instant messaging are the realities of our lives. Do they contribute to information overload?
All information sources contribute in some way to information overload. That doesn’t make the sources or the technologies bad but it doesn’t help lessen the problem either.
Do you think that living in the age of information technology has taken us away from the simple joys of life?
Technology has had a dramatic impact on how we live and work, as has the dramatic increase in the creation and distribution of information. It was unthinkable even five years ago that so much information would be available in so many places.
The increased use of mobile devices makes one constantly feel on-call, so times of the day that previously would have been reserved for family, friends and leisure are encroached upon.
The greatest change is the reduction of the amount of time knowledge workers have available to do this. This figure has steadily declined and my research, as reflected in the book, shows that the typical knowledge worker only has 5% of the day at most for thought and reflection.