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.

Whose problem?

But again, it’s not the data’s fault…and we’re not likely to ever return to those pastoral years when there was not much data around.

It’s our fault, as individuals and as organizations.  We control the data, not the reverse.   The data serves us, not the reverse.

In other words, it’s a management problem.  Then the challenge becomes—whose management problem?  In whose domain does this, or should this, fall?  The CIO?  The head of market research?  Strategy?  The CEO?  The Board?

The biggest challenge is:  as long as it’s everyone’s problem, it’s no one’s problem.  These are the most insidious kinds of management problems, for just the reason that they are not ‘owned’ by any one function or discipline.  Solving the ownership issue, by assigning someone oversight of and accountability for this the problem, should be our first order of business.

Maybe it’s time for a Chief Focus Officer.

And just as they say ‘you are what you eat’ as an individual, an organization’s strategies and behaviors are largely a function of the information it intakes and processes.

Our answer:  build a wire frame

When I started managing other business researchers, I would tell them, “Don’t just go out and starting grabbing data—you will quickly drown in the data ocean.  Work instead like a sculptor.  Start by building a ‘wire frame’ model in the general shape of your finished product.  Then collect and hang relevant data elements on the frame in order to create a complete picture.”

I still use that rule of thumb, though it has now become more formalized.  We have recently started using our Knowledge Value Chain® model to define enterprise strategic information requirements from the top down.   We create a strategic information model of the organization using three basic phases:

  1. Mapping the various value-creating elements in a company (i.e., defining the value layer, the top of the KVC)
  2. Identifying the drivers in the business environment likely to affect those elements (opportunities and threats)
  3. Identifying strategic leading indicators of change in those drivers (i.e., defining the data layer, the bottom of the KVC)

This approach allows us to define which information is essential, which is not needed, and which is needed but not yet collected.  In effect we create an ‘information diet that the organization can use to manage its intake and processing of strategic information as a structured process—not as a ‘boil the ocean’ data grab.

This enables you to not only cut costs, but—more importantly—increase the focus of your organization on those factors which directly affect your competitive value.  Paradoxically, once you do this, your situation may change from a perceived glut of information, to an actual shortfall of information about those factors that strategically most affect your organization.

The ‘whose problem’ question above is not just rhetorical—I can really use some ideas here.  Your comments welcome.

3 Responses to “Information overload: an urban myth?”

  1. Nice article – great observations, Tim.

    I agree completely with your comment:
    “Start by building a ‘wire frame’ model in the general shape of your finished product.”
    Maybe start, however, with a model of the external environment before building a subjective internal corporate model.

    Do you agree?
    (And if you agree, should the company build it, or access the information from an information vendor?)

  2. Thanks Alan.

    Yes I agree totally. Companies far too often underestimate the impact general market and business environment conditions have on what success they have and what they need to do going forward.

    Yes too, I think ‘outsiders’ are often positioned best to do an objective assessment of this, since they literally live in the aforementioned environment.

    I should mention, by way of full disclosure, that my firm offers this as a service we call Competitive Environment Modeling. It is an essential foundation for strategic intelligence, strategy development, M&A, and new product development.

    We definitely practice what we preach!

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