Thursday, March 22, 2012

Eluding Death by Information Overload

Buried by Auntie P
Buried, a photo by Auntie P on Flickr. 
"Fifty-seven channels and there's nothing on..."  "TMI, TMI!"  "What we have here is a failure to communicate..."  

Just where is the line between enough information and too much?  And what is the impact of too much information on the effectiveness of communication?

The culture of "need to know"
In certain work environments information is the ultimate power.  In high security work, being able to qualify for high-level clearances can mean the difference between being a drone and having the opportunity to be a star.  In old-school command and control work settings (not high security, but high tension) paranoid supervisors guard their knowledge fiercely.  After all, superior knowledge is all that's preventing some young upstart from unseating them or overpowering them in the company's political scene.

The policy of "need to know only" was the man keeping people down.  It had detrimental side effects that drove the communication issue to the forefront.  Functional silos where information didn't cross departmental lines and employees living the life of mushrooms (in the dark under a pile of manure) set the stage for daily activities and decision making that were out of context and therefore de facto flawed. Employees didn't know where they fit into the overall picture.  Mushroom management caused disengagement, where employees didn't feel invested in achieving good results and over time gave less and less of a rat's patootie about outcomes.  So the pendulum had to start to swing the other way.

Buried by data
Enter the information overload.  News comes 24/7, and in order to fill programming time small stories are blown up into big ones.  People have access to news from almost any corner of the world - on demand on their tv, radio, tablet, and smart phone.  Add to that general business information, updates and developments within the industry - whew!  It becomes an avalanche of data.  The brain spends so much time taking information in, and for what purpose?

Relevance becomes crucial in helping people sort through all of the data and decide what they really need to take in.  Part of the challenge lies in the fact that sometimes inspiration comes best from cross-fertilization from one industry to the next.  You might not know up front that information that might not seem to relate directly to you could help you solve a persistent problem.  So how do you know what to sort OUT in order to make room for the things you want to sort IN?

If you have a goal in mind you create a context for the data.  Otherwise information is just information.  Context gives you the opportunity to sort data in and out of your attention, because you're looking for application potential that's relevant to your goal.  When you look at data with a particular problem in mind, certain bits pop into the foreground.  A goal - or an intention if you are not ready to be completely specific - diverts some of the flow away from you and directs a more manageable stream in you direction.

When you cause the avalanche
If you are of the current leadership mindset that says more information is better than less information for your employees, beware.  You may be a contributor to the avalanche of data that overwhelms employees and paralyzes them.  Give them goals to help them sort through information.  Disseminate data in manageable bites.  A perennial workplace issue is that workers never read the manual - instead they interrupt their supervisor, tapping the boss on the arm and asking a question that could be found "in the book."  But the book weighs five pounds and is 3 inches thick.  Its mass alone stimulates that buried feeling in employees.  They don't even want to crack the cover much less search for an answer that could be had in one word from the right person.

It can be a problem for your employees if you think out loud at them regularly.  They might not be able to discern between brainstorming, decision making and direction giving, and later you will be likely to find yourself frustrated with the way in which they didn't follow through properly.  If you are an auditory processor you may need to sort things out by verbalizing them, but to avoid confusion on the part of your employees it might be a good move to engage a coach with whom you do the sorting.  That way your thoughts will be more fully formulated, you will have done the data sorting, and the message will be more focused, understandable and actionable for your employees.

1 comment:

A. J. Marr said...


The core assumption behind information overload is that the information we want is the same as the information we need or like. Therefore, we cannot with good reason cut back on the information we want, because it reflects stuff that is important to us. Hence, thanks to the web we are overloaded with needed information that we can’t help wanting. However, from the perspective of contemporary affective neuroscience, wanting and liking are NOT the same thing, and are governed by entirely different neural processes. Thus, what we want is different from what we need because wanting and liking represent distinctive neurological events. Therefore, the key underlying premise of information overload that everything we want is the same as everything we need is based on cognitive principles that have no basis in neural reality, and the concept of information overload must therefore be abandoned.

The linked article questions the concept of information overload by challenging this most elementary underlying assumption. Based on the work of the distinguished neuropsychologist Kent Berridge of the University of Michigan (who also vetted and endorsed it), it is simple, short, and uses a Boston Red Sox title run to make its very radical point. Hope you ‘like’ it or at the very least the Red Sox!