Information Overload in the Workplace

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Information Overload in the Workplace

In 1900 the total amount of knowledge available to us doubled about every 500 years. In 1990 it doubled about every two years. And by 2020, some futurists predict that knowledge will double every 35 days.

According to Catherine Eberlein, because of information overload, workers and managers are thinking less, inventing less, producing less, succeeding less.” This observation made by Catherine Eberlein in 2017 reflects a growing concern not only for business but for all of us who use technology in our daily jobs and personal lives. In fact, the growing complexity of our modern civilization may bring back a Luddite like reaction.

Eberlein made an eye-opening statement when she stated: “For awareness starters, nothing quite gets our attention like dollar figures. According to Jonathan Spira, CEO and chief analyst at Basex,

a knowledge economy research firm, and a founding IORG member, the latest research shows that information overload costs the U.S. economy a minimum of $900 billion per year in lowered employee productivity and reduced innovation. It reflects the loss of 25 percent of the knowledge worker’s day to the (information overload) problem. 

In the beginning, multiple, new technologies provided more access to more information and competed for our attention. We’re available 24×7 regardless of where we are. We wear that availability and our multi-tasking skills almost like a badge of honor. In the end, we wonder if we will ever be able to catch up or keep up.

Accelerating Speed of Knowledge Acquisition

In 1900 the total amount of knowledge available to us doubled about every 500 years. In 1990 it doubled about every two years. And by 2020, some futurists predict that knowledge will double every 35 days.

Interrupted work and the Email avalanche

Eberlein points out that about 30 percent of those messages (1 million per day) were unnecessary.

For instance, the volume of e-mail itself represents a daunting workload in itself. It starts with the need to read and react to messages, dispose of them or deal with the uninvited work requests they’ve provided. This barrage taxes employees’ resources and reduces the time they can devote to their primary work. “It also places them in a frustrating, unending rat race,” she stated.

Then there’s the factor of workplace distractions and interruptions not just from e-mail, but instant messages, phone calls, text messages, co-workers—most of which get immediate attention only add to the overload. Researchers have found that on average, knowledge workers can expect three minutes of uninterrupted work on any task before being interrupted. The result is that people average 11 minutes on any project before switching to another project altogether.

Cognitive Interruption

Thomas Jackson’s 2001 study on “cognitive reorientation costs” found that constant interruption increased the time required to do complex chores by as much as 20 percent to 40 percent.

Overload and Lower IQ and less “thinking time.”

A research study commissioned by Hewlett-Packard reported that IQ scores of information workers tested while they are subjected to distraction and overload are reduced by 10 points.

The creative thinking process requires long stretches of uninterrupted time to study information, process it, mentally sort it, and to then generate insight. Each part of the process takes time and mental concentration, which builds up slowly and can easily be lost.

How Overload affects the Organization

Meetings aren’t effective. People dealing with e-mail, text messages or cell phone calls in meetings are now the norm. And if they’re not doing so, they are definitely thinking about it. The most important aspect of effective meetings is joining the creative energy and critical thinking of several brains into a powerful problem-solving engine. That energy becomes utterly lost. And the investment made in meetings is significantly reduced.

Manager-employee interaction suffers. A key role of senior managers is to engage employees through mentoring, guidance and support. Reality today is that getting half an hour with your boss one-on-one is next to impossible. If you do get the time, it might be lost while your manager takes or rejects cell-phone calls. Managers waste countless hours trying to cope with their own information overload and often won’t respond to an employee’s message for days.

The fact that a subordinate is unable to get a manager’s coaching and advice when needed is an alarming sign of how extensively unsolicited distractions have derailed even the most basic management processes.

Task and work planning become interrupt-driven. Prior to e-mail, people planned their day based on their own objectives. If anyone wanted their time, he or she needed to negotiate with the employee or his or her manager, often being refused if workloads and priorities dictated it. By succumbing to information overload, entire worker populations have gone from plan-driven to interrupt-driven. (“I better do this now before x happens”).

A major use of e-mail is to distribute assignments. The sender requests something: fill a Web survey, attend a meeting, compile and share materials, write a report, view a file, take a class, etc. The shorter tasks—ones taking under 10 minutes—are often executed when the message is read. This type of diversion can accumulate rapidly given current traffic levels. Others get incorporated in the person’s activity plan for coming days.

IO impacts outside of Work

This overload affects employees’ lives—and their loved ones’—both quantitatively and qualitatively. Quantitatively, because employees have less of a personal life when they process incoming messages around the clock.

One way to solve the IO conundrum: The Gig Economy

Information overload is a significant contributor to stress in the workplace, and it bears several negative outcomes. An unexpected research finding comes from a survey of U.K. employees where temporary employees report better well-being, general health, more positive attitude toward work and better work behavior (e.g., less absenteeism) than their permanent counterparts. As a reflection of this “project” based” job, more workers are opting out to become subcontractors where the work is specific in its description and gig workers can insolate themselves from all of the other distractions. Indeed, there are now over 150 million workers in the gig economy. The money and benefits may be less, but the quality of life may be better.

According to Nathan Zeldes, co-founder, president and chairman of IORG ( Information Overload Research Group), he studied this while working at Intel as a principal engineer. He co-authored a paper with David Sward, and Signal Loucheim called, “Infomania: Why we can’t afford to ignore it any longer,” which provides additional insight into two primary culprits—e-mail and distractions—and what happens to workers as a result.

Zeleds summed it up: “Like an addict trying to kick a dangerous habit, the first step to dealing with information overload is to admit there’s a problem. Only then does the real work begin.

With the advent of big data, the Internet of Things and a universe of new applications, smart information companies are looking for ways to more efficiently process the IO as well as make it easier to make data-based decisions without the clutter and lost time trying to coordinate information from a range of different applications that require specific competence.

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