The information elephant

If you’re here, I’m pretty sure it’s because you’re feeling the effects of information overload.  We’re going to embark on a journey to find and share some answers.

What makes me an expert on information overload?  I’m not a technologist, although I use lots of technology every day.  I’m not a researcher, although I embrace the value of data.  I’m a communicator.  I’ve spent time as a journalist, a political press secretary, an employee communications manager, a partner in a marketing firm, and a communications consultant.  About five years ago, I began to see that information overload was interfering with the communicating I was trying to do inside organizations.

Two things smacked me in the head and made me realize it was a lot bigger than that.  One occurred when I was waiting for an appointment at a PR firm.  I spotted a memo from the CFO on the bulletin board.  He said that if everyone in the firm spent an hour less per day processing email, they’d free up $1 million a year.  That was certainly serious coin.

A short time later, I was flying home next to a young woman who worked as a recruiter for a large software company.  She was about to have a meltdown.  She spent most of the flight trying to make her way through scores of emails she had downloaded shortly before takeoff . . . practically in tears . . . knowing that she’d have another huge batch awaiting her upon landing.  I’ve often wondered if she followed through on her inclination to seek another career.

It had become apparent to me that information overload was much more than an inconvenience to communicators.  It would require an all-out assault by Communications, HR and IT organizations to rid work environments of this scourge.

Early in 2007, I was involved in a two-day discussion at Microsoft Research involving about 30 researchers, technologists and deep thinkers from Microsoft, Intel, IBM, Google, Morgan Stanley, Stanford University, UC Irvine, and other organizations large and small.  I was the only communications guy in the room.  I signed on to help make something happen, and a year later we incorporated the Information Overload Research Group.  In July 2008, IORG held its first conference in New York and is now focusing on online events.  You can read my hopes for the group here.

I’ve also written two articles about IO:

The Staggering Cost of Information Overload” for the International Association of Business Communicators’ Communication World Online

Email Overload:  The Elephant in the Room” for the Journal of Employee Communications Management, republished by Communitelligence

While IORG is busy creating a comprehensive repository of research on information overload, I want to jump-start the spread of solutions.  Here are my goals for this blog:

1.  If you set out to solve the information overload problem in your organization, where do you begin?  TMI is intended to share what works.  Some of what works involves technology.  Some includes better strategies for managing incoming information.  And some centers on changing the behavior of information-sharers to more thoughtfully consider the “tragedy of the commons.”

2.  This blog is designed to serve as a bridge between the communications profession and those who are actively working to solve the problem.  Communicators are all affected by information overload—but there’s not nearly enough discussion about it within the profession.  Not all IO is related to communications . . . but communicators have a major role to play in strategizing (and then communicating about) the solution.

3.  TMI will offer ideas for individuals trying to simply keep up.  How do you cope with the riding tide of information?  What should you expect of yourself?  When is it OK to turn off and tune out?

4.  Finally, if we do our job, we’ll also broaden the conversation.  Most discussions about information overload have focused on business productivity.  Fair enough.  My friends at Basex say it costs the U.S. economy $900 billion a year (article at Huffington Post).  That merits the attention of everyone.  But what other impacts—and high costs—come with information overload?  What are its effects on government, academia, medicine, law, science, religion, marketing, journalism, media . . . and the resulting social costs?  What are the unintended consequences of potential solutions?

So we’re off and running.  Will adding to information overload help solve it?  We’ll see . . . .

Posted by Bill Boyd

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1 Comment

Filed under Attention mangement, Communications, Cultural change, Email management, Financial impacts

One response to “The information elephant

  1. People are getting overwhelmed with information, and the problem is only increasing.

    I’m curious about what IORG can archive with time; so far I guess we’re still at the beginning of the “Overload Age” ?!

    There is a lot of effort in creating new tools for communicating and sharing information, but not so much effort in *reducing* the quantity (and increasing the quality).

    My company has created a personal knowledge management tool for Windows that focus directly on this issue; if you write down the important information and ignore/forget the rest, you will reduce the information overload significantly.

    Of course, selecting the “important” parts is a filtering issue and a difficult challenge no matter how you look at it….

    My 2 cents on information overload and filtering:
    http://www.ppcsoft.com/blog/information-overload.asp

    http://www.ppcsoft.com/blog/pkm-filtering-info-overload.asp

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