Understanding The Issues Of Information Overload

In this paper we discussed about Understanding information overload and the common causes of information overload, the disadvantages of information overload for an organization, managing information flow in order to minimize the effect of information overload for the organization, the role of information professional to overcome the information overload extract the useful information. Hope the readers will benefited.

Information Overload is an increasing problem both in the workplace and in life in general. It is a state in which the amount of available information is so overwhelming a person is unable to effectively process and utilize it.

Information overload is intuitively noticeable in our daily lives. Walking any street, we can hardly measure the amount of information we are exposed to. Information hits us from all directions, newspapers, television, voice mail, cellular phones, email, electronic memos, and the World Wide Web, to name a few. This increase in information, combined with the factor of change in many aspects of our lives, can lead to an unhealthy effect.

Information Overload is when you are trying to deal with more information than you are able to process to make sensible decisions. The result is either that you either delay making decisions, or that you make the wrong decisions.


Understanding Information overload

The first recorded use of the phrase “information overload” was used by the futurologist Alvin Toffler in 1970, when he predicted that the rapidly increasing amounts of information being produced would eventually cause people problems. Heylighen (1999) noted, “People exposed to the rapid changes of modern life may develop a state of helplessness and inadequacy.”

Nelson (2001) defines information overload as the incapability to obtain a form of knowledge from a massive amount of information for one reason or another. Information overload can take place for one of these reasons:

1. Not understanding the existing information

2. Feeling inundated by the need to absorb huge amounts of information

3. Not knowing if the needed information exists or not

4. Not knowing where to obtain the information

5. Knowing where the information is but have no access privilege

Causes of Information overload

Information overload was experienced long before the appearance of information technology and electronic gadgets. Complaints about “too many books” echo across the centuries, from when books were papyrus rolls, parchment manuscripts, or hand printed. After Printing innovation books were produced and accumulated in unprecedented numbers, and, given their drop in cost, many more readers than before had access to more books than they could read.

In the Internet era where millions of smart phones and gadgets are sold every day, zillions of tons of data are being produced. Thus making people spoilt for choices. With a touch, one can easily get almost any data from any corner of the world. The rate of production of different kinds of data such as news, text, multimedia and graphs is breathtaking. For example: YouTube where 24 hours of video is being uploaded in every minute and the rate is increasing everyday. There are millions of sites are there and even the IP address is going to be exhausted. One could imagine the amount of electronic data that is available to digest.

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Organizations accumulate a huge amount of information about its internal operations and resources. Fifteen years ago only phone, fax and post mails were used for communication. There is a general increase in business communication by voice mail, e-mail, internet and online conferencing in addition to the above mentioned traditional methods which results information overload.

Disadvantages of information overload for an organization

Too little or too much information is not good for an individual and an organization. Too much reduces their ability to concentrate effectively on the most important messages. People facing information overload sometimes try to cope by ignoring some of the messages, by delaying responses to messages they deem unimportant, by answering only parts of some messages, by responding inaccurately to certain messages, by taking less time with each message, or by reacting only superficially to all messages.

Persons exposed to excessive amounts of information are less productive, prone to make poor decisions, and risk suffering serious stress-related diseases. He becomes highly selective and ignore a large amount of information or give up and don’t go beyond the first results in many cases, need more time to reach a decision, make mistakes, have difficulties in identifying the relationship between the details and the overall perspective and waste time.

Information overload affects-and afflicts-both individual knowledge workers, struggling to perform their jobs while drowning in data, and entire office organizations, whose productivity and customer care suffer as a consequence.

The abundance of information we enjoy today comes at a price. Less apparent is the tremendous hidden cost it imposes on the organization as a whole. In one study, for example, people took an average of nearly 25 minutes to return to a work task after an email interruption. Another study found that time lost to handling unnecessary e-mail and recovering from information interruptions cost Intel nearly $1 billion a year. An article in the October issue of HBR, found that forcing knowledge workers to take weekly breaks from email and other work distractions improved performance. Information Overload on an organization is to understand all the lost opportunities it causes and inefficiencies produced.

The amount of information has increased for a number of reasons: there is a general increase in business communication, in-company and with customers and suppliers; trends such as globalisation and deregulation increase competition; companies are downsizing and fewer secretaries are employed to protect people from information; more outsourcing means a wider range of other companies with which it is necessary to communicate. There are also more ways to communicate: by fax, voice mail, e-mail, internet and online conferencing, in addition to the more traditional methods, telephone, meetings, post and telex.

The cost to business

Time is wasted. People spend too much time looking for information. 38% of managers surveyed waste “substantial” amounts of time just looking for information. Factors such as the holding of files in different software formats and the speed of the internet at critical times of day contribute to this. Decisions are often delayed: 43% of respondents though that decisions were delayed and otherwise adversely affected by “analysis paralysis” or the existence of too much information. 47% of respondents said that information collection distracts them from their main responsibilities. They find it difficult to develop strategies for dealing with the information they retrieve. It is interesting to imagine the potential increase in productivity if all distractions were removed.

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The human costs

The study identified for the first time that information overload contributes to stress. Two out of three respondents associated information overload with tension with colleagues and loss of job satisfaction. 42% attributed ill-health to this stress. 61% said that they have to cancel social activities as a result of information overload and 60% that they are frequently too tired for leisure activities.

National differences

In general these were not considered to be of great significance. Managers in the USA and the United Kingdom get the most unsolicited information. Asian managers appear to need less information to make decisions: only 9% claimed to need “enormous amounts” of information compared with 31% in the United States. Their major decisions may be made through intuition to a greater extent. More United States managers (39%) agree that they suffer stress than those in the UK and Hong Kong. People can no longer develop effective personal strategies for managing information.

Faced with an onslaught of information and information channels, they have become unable to develop simple routines for managing information. Technologies for managing information are often the problem, not the solution. They can create the “M25 effect”: more lanes just means more traffic. People create and distribute because they can, not because it’s useful. Intranets can become like the internet – full of home-made home pages and dead links. “Intelligent agents” frequently do not live up to their name.

Current research suggests that the surging volume of available information-and its interruption of people’s work-can adversely affect not only personal well-being but also decision making, innovation, and productivity. In one study, for example, people took an average of nearly 25 minutes to return to a work task after an e-mail interruption. That’s bad news for both individuals and their organizations.

There’s hope, though. Innovative tools and techniques promise relief for those of us struggling with information inundation. Some are technological solutions-software that automatically sorts and prioritizes incoming e-mail, for instance-designed to regulate or divert the deluge. Others prevent people from drowning by getting them to change the way they behave and think. Who knows: Maybe someday even I will enjoy swimming in the powerful currents of information that now threaten to pull me under.

Before we can take action / set the procedure to minimize the negative effect of information overload, we should do the analysis of information flows both individual and organisation. Not only for electronic information source such email, but also for spoken words, reading books and talking to friends and family. The analysis is started with identification what information we need based on our key information areas, when we need the information, to whom we should exchange the information with (information sharing), and why we need the information and how we turn the information into results.

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After understand the information flow, we will be able to set/construct the ‘procedure” of information handling which consists of filtering, information pruning, time management, to-do list and optimization the use of current technology as information organizing and distributing tool. There are two types of filtering information i.e. technical filter and daily communication filter. The technical filter is easier to manage as once we set our preference it will work accordingly. An example of technical filter is filter function that is available in e-mails. Filtering daily communication is more difficult because it depends much on the situation and current conversation at that time. Every reaction to another person is an indication of what you want to hear or not hear during the rest of the conversation. We often think that the information is important/useful for the recipient which actually not from recipient point of view. Filter prime our thinking and test whether the new information is important. However, the filter should not be too rigid, as it may exclude coincidences. We will no longer accidentally stumble across information, as is often part of searches on the internet.

As regards of second information flow, we can decide more quickly to simply stop receiving it if the information is just “nice to know” instead of “need to know”. We will not miss anything as we don’t use this information for making decision. Besides that, this less important information will leave us less time for really important information. There is a tool for technical pruning such as setting up the expiry date and which action should we take e.g. file, cancel, delete, etc.

Time management is important as time is always in exceedingly short supply. We never enough with the time that we have. Therefore, attention and concentration are important aspect in time management. With full attention and concentration the time spent for managing information is more efficient.

Because we need to remember increasingly more, we need an aid i.e. to do list of actions so that we can keep tracking what things we still need to do/settle. This practice alone will give us a lot of added value. Besides the to-do list, it is also good if we also make “not-to-list” so that when the time come, we are ready.

Nowadays with high technology we can optimize the IT to help us to organize and distribute the information.

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