We increasingly hear complaints about the stresses and strains of “information overload.”  I have to admit, I’m somewhat skeptical of this term and the phenomena associated with it.

First, this is not a new issue.  To the contrary, I suspect that since the earliest days of civilization, people have complained about information overload.  I can imagine the Town Crier (this was a person in the 1800’s employed by a town to proclaim announcements in the streets) approaching, bell ringing in hand, yelling, “Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye.  Let it be known that…” and the town’s citizens grumbling, “Oh no!  That’s the third crier I’ve heard today – is there no limit to the amount of news we are expected to listen to?”

There’s something about the term “information overload” that puts the cart before the horse.  It’s like “horseless carriage” rather than “automobile” – if you pick the wrong label, you might misunderstand the problem, and thus come up with the wrong solution (or at least, come up with a solution that generates all sorts of undesirable, unintended consequences!)  If you think of the problem as information overload you might look for a solution that cuts back on the information, and that would be a crime!

I don’t personally suffer from information overload.  I feel eternally fortunate that I have access to so much information – that I am washed in so many messages for so much of my day and evening.  But, what I do feel is a strong need to:

  1. Be better at finding potentially valuable information.  I’m finding an ever increasing array of new tools  – often Web 2.0 tools such as social bookmarking, RSS readers, tag and search, and content management – that really are helping me find useful information I might not otherwise come across.
  2. Have much better tools to sort and filter the information available.  Again, tools such as tag/search, social bookmarking, and RSS readers are a great help in sorting and filtering.
  3. Have much better ways to make sense of all the information.  There is always room for improvement here, but I find the better I can leverage technology to help with 1. and 2. above, the easier it is to make sense of the information I’m exposed to.  And even then, Web 2.0 tools such as blogs, social networks, and easy-to-use collaboration tools (e.g., mind mapping, project management) are helping enormously.

I think some of the so-called “information overload” is actually a “channels” problem – we often use the wrong channels for a given purpose.  Email, of course, is the most prone to abuse.  Part of this is a lack of accepted, shared protocols that would bring some sense and order to the email chaos.  Part of this is the old “hammer” problem – when all you have is a hammer, everything is treated as if it were a nail.  Clearly, tools such as Instant Messaging, collaboration hubs, and a better balance between “push” and “pull” communication methods can take the sting out of email.   At nGenera, my email traffic is down significantly since we began using a collaboration hub.

A more insidious problem that I believe is often masked under the “information overload” banner is poor work management practices.  In many IT organizations I see situations where layers of middle management have been eliminated over the last few years, but work processes have not been improved.  This is exacerbated by IT organizations often being the worst kind of “cobblers children” in that they are all but un-automated.  As a result, we see IT managers who spend much of their day sending and responding to email messages that are actually part of a dreadfully inefficient work-flow.  So, you have broken work-flow processes automated by email – a recipe for low productivity, low quality, and managers who don’t have the time to think, read, or learn. 

Let’s call a spade a spade – this is not “information overload” – it is poor management (at all levels) that has fostered poor processes and has created a vicious cycle leading to yet more emails, and ever-shrinking time to “sharpen the saw”, as the old adage goes.