Companies & Industries

What's So Bad about Information Overload?


The editors at Harvard Business Online ask if perhaps there is indeed value in all that data that's coming your way

Posted on HBR Editors' Blog: June 27, 2008 3:21 PM

I had a conversation with Xerox CEO Anne Mulcahy recently about this much-maligned phenomenon. It's a topic of particular interest at Xerox, which feels partly responsible for the problem. After all, the company created one of the earliest sources of information overload: the photocopy machine, which permitted limitless reproduction of printed information and resulted in towering piles of interoffice memoranda in people's (physical, in that bygone era, rather than digital) in-boxes.

Possibly to help assuage corporate guilt for this near-original sin, the company has developed an array of products and services that help organizations and individuals more effectively manage, filter, and share information. One of the more unusual ones in development is self-erasing paper, to be used for "transient" documents with a prescribed period of utility. When the information on the document is at the end of its useful life, the ink disappears and the paper can be reused—saving trees but also eliminating a clutter of unnecessary information.

The company also has fostered some informal in-house norms related to that most ubiquitous of information annoyances, email. Messages longer than a single screen are discouraged; so are attachments and long lists of people in the Cc: line.

But here's the rub. Anne says that email—which she identifies as her biggest information overload pain point—is crucial to her success. Incoming email messages, all of which she sees, provide her with a unique lens onto what's going on in the organization and with her customers. That's partly because people are willing to voice concerns with her in an email that they'd be reluctant to share over the phone or in a rare face to face meeting. It would be a mistake, she says, for her to filter or otherwise limit the email sent to her.

Which got me thinking: Is "information overload" the cultural crisis it's made out to be? Forget for a moment the question of whether too much distracting information decreases organizational productivity. What about how it affects you personally?

Sure, it can you leave you feeling overwhelmed or pulled in all directions as you try to get something done. But, as Robert Scoble suggests, maybe you should stop whining, hold on, and enjoy the ride.

Sure, it can make you feel victimized, the target of a bullet spray from an informational machine gun. Well, if you can't take it, there are, as Steve Rubin points out, countless people 10 or 20 years younger than you who are ready and able to show that they can.

Sure, it can sap not only time but also energy: It's hard to rise above that demoralizing sense of inadequacy that comes from being unable to keep up with everything. So, follow Clay Shirky's advice and abandon any hope of keeping up. Admit and accept you're never going to read—forget answer—all of your email messages, even from people you know.

Instead, do what you can, all the while realizing—as Anne Mulcahy does—the value you're getting from this abundant wealth of information.

Okay, your turn: Is today's onslaught of information a bane or a boon?

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