Managing Information Overload

Overload - the problem and solutions



Information overload is having an excess of information that makes it difficult to conclude, decide, learn, and remain informed about a topic. Solutions are presented

Work in progress

Information overload is having an excess of information that makes it difficult to conclude, decide, learn, and remain informed about a topic. It is a common situation in business and is more recently often referred to in conjunction with various forms of information technology. There are several solutions to the problem of information overload, and integration of various forms of information management are presented.

General causes

The general causes of information overload include:

  • A increasing rate of new information being produced
  • Too much duplication and transmission of data and information
  • More channels of incoming information (telephone, e-mail, instant messaging)
  • Large amounts of extraneous information to dig through
  • Contradictions and inaccuracies in available information
  • A lack of a method for comparing and processing different kinds of information

E-mail is often a significant source of information overload, as
people struggle to keep up with the rate of incoming messages. As well
as filtering out unsolicited commercial messages (spam), users also have to contend with the growing use of e-mail attachments in the form of lengthy reports, presentations and media files.

A December 2007 New York Times blog post described E-mail as “a $650 Billion Drag on the Economy”[1],
and the New York Times reported in April 2008 that “E-MAIL has become
the bane of some people‚Äôs professional lives” due to information
overload, yet “none of [the current wave of high-profile Internet
startups focused on email] really eliminates the problem of e-mail
overload because none helps us prepare replies”.[2]

Technology investors reflect similar concerns.[3]

In addition to e-mail, the World Wide Web
has provided access to billions of pages of information. In many
offices, workers are given unrestricted access to the Web, allowing
them to manage their own research. The use of search engines
helps users to find information quickly. However, information published
online may not always be reliable, due to the lack of
authority-approval or a compulsory accuracy check before publication.
This results in people having to cross-check what they read before
using it for decision-making, which takes up more time.

Psychological effects

As people are faced with growing levels of information overload, the
inability to make clear and accurate decisions can increase their stress levels.

An article in the New Scientist magazine claimed that exposing individuals to an information overloaded environment resulted in lower IQ scores than exposing individuals to marijuana[4], although these results are contested[5]. The same article also notes that a night without sleep can be as debilitating as over-exposure to information.

Part of the problem of information overload can be traced to interruptions in the workplace. Interruptions include incoming e-mail messages, phone calls and instant messaging
– all of which break mental focus, and redirect it to the source of the
interruption. The person has to deal with the interruption, then
redirect their attention back to the original task.

In 2005, research firm “Basex” calculated the cost of unnecessary interruptions and related recovery time at “$588 billion” per annum in the U.S. alone. That figure was updated to “$650 billion” in early 2007.

Response in business and government

Many academics, corporate decision-makers, and federal policy-makers
recognize the magnitude and growing impact of this phenomenon. In June
2008 a group of interested researchers from a diverse set of
corporations, smaller companies, academic institutions and
consultancies created the Information Overload Research Group (IORG),
a non-profit interest group dedicated to raising awareness, sharing
research results and promoting the creation of solutions around
Information Overload.

Recent research suggests that an “attention economy
of sorts will naturally emerge from information overload, allowing
Internet users greater control over their online experience with
particular regard to communication mediums such as e-mail and instant
messaging. This could involve some sort of cost being attached to
e-mail messages. For example, managers charging a small fee for every
e-mail received – e.g. $5.00 – which the sender must pay from their
budget. The aim of such charging is to force the sender to consider the
necessity of the interruption.