Information Overload: An Urban Myth?

I just listened to a fascinating webinar in which five authors recounted their experiences, both personal and professional, with information overload.  One of the speakers, Jonathan Spira, reports that he has measured this phenomenon, and that it costs the US economy over $1 trillion per year!

Shifting the blame

But in naming the phenomenon ‘information overload’, it seems to place the blame on the information—not on ourselves, where it belongs.  People bemoan the distractions offered by ubiquitous information devices like smart phones and tablets—similar to the complaints that were made when the telegraph and the printed book were introduced!

This seems to us like blaming obesity on food.  “Gee, there’s so much food out there, if I ate it all, I’d get really fat.”  (Yes, you would…and with an obesity rate running over 30% in many US states, some people appear to be trying to do just that.)  If we were to talk about obesity as a food overload, it would sound pretty silly.  Though our general abundance is certainly an enabling factor, most people realize that you have to eat intelligently and selectively to stay healthy.

Maybe what we’re all experiencing is better described as collective attention deficit, or of being focus-challenged.

The information metabolism

all-you-can-eat_25Organizations have this problem too, and typically don’t fare much better.  In my article “The Information Metabolism” (Competitive Intelligence Review, Fall 1995), I compared the intake and processing of information to the intake and processing of food—eating and digestion. Though my tone was whimsical, I was only half-kidding.   I believe they are closely analogous, as my article described:

Some organizations are ‘information starved’…Others are ‘fat’ with information—they acquire it, but can’t use it effectively to create value.  Still other organizations ‘binge’ on information—they get lots of it at certain times (like strategic planning season), but not enough the rest of the time.

This was written at the dawn of the Internet Age, and the situation has accelerated dramatically since then.  I’ve seen this up close in companies, and it can be quite distressing.  Some are literally awash in so much data that it erodes their ability to process and use it effectively to manage their business.

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