Information overload is assumed to have increased significantly in organizations as a result of the computer revolution from the mid-twentieth century onwards. The situation is thought to have been exacerbated by the expansion of the Internet and email from academia into the business world, by the development of the World Wide Web and, even more recently, by the explosive expansion of mobile (or cellular) telephony.
This is information overload on an organizational level. Information overload also defeats situational awareness, but at the individual or crew level. The enormous amount of sensor and database knowledge available to intelligence and military personnel can cause key information to be missed, as with the 9-11 attacks.
However, information overload is nothing new: the potential for overload has existed ever since information became an important input to any human activity. For example, once the scientific disciplines began to clearly emerge in the 17th to 19th centuries, it gradually became impossible for anyone to keep abreast of all of the work in what had been called 'natural philosophy'. Today, in some fields, the degree of specialisation is so high that, even within the same discipline, people are unable to keep abreast of all sub-areas and, in fact, may be completely unable to understand some of them.
Throughout the 20th century, the explosion of information outputs in the form of journal papers, patents, books, 'grey' literature, and so forth continued and that explosion gained even more force in the period immediately following the Second World War. Arguably, it was the release of formerly secret information from both Germany and the Allies that resulted in the birth of information science. More than forty years ago Price showed the exponential growth of scientific journals and of abstracting journals, which constitute a small part of the total information to which a person may be exposed.
What has been recognized in science for many years now affects almost every walk of life: virtually all occupations are, to some degree or other, 'information' occupations and the flood of information from diverse sources, through diverse channels, affects anyone who needs specialised information of any kind in order to function effectively in the world.
Wilson has provided definitions of information overload as a personal phenomenon, and as an organizational phenomenon: at the personal level, he defines information overload as:
a perception by a person (or observer) that the information associated with work tasks is greater than can be managed effectively, and a perception that such overload creates a degree of stress for which the coping strategies are ineffective;
and, at the organizational level, as:
a situation in which the extent of perceived individual information overload is sufficiently widespread within the organization as to reduce the overall effectiveness of management operations.
A brief illustration of information overflow is provided in the following video, which sums up a conference by means of screenshots made by an online attendee. Presented at 1 frame per second, the content of the screen can sometimes be parsed completely, sometimes not, as is typically the case near the threshold for information overflow.
Business factors and information overload
Although information overload is often attributed almost entirely to technological factors but, in fact, the pressures on business are probably equally significant. We can point to globalisation, which increases the volume of communication between different parts of a business; de-regulation of certain industries, which has increased competition and, consequently, the work-loads of employees; out-sourcing, which increases the number of organizations with which a company needs to communicate; and downsizing, which, in spite of being rejected by the management consultant who originally advocated it, is still employed by many businesses as a way of immediately boosting their market value, and which puts increased pressure on the remaining staff.
These factors, coupled with an ethos that encourages long working hours, are probably the primary causes of overload, with the technology being the enabler, rather than the cause.
A Reuters report on the subject also identified some of the effects of overload, specifically:
- time is wasted - 38% of managers surveyed reported wasting substantial amounts of time looking for information;
- delayed decision-making - 43% of respondents thought that decisions were delayed or adversely affected by the existence of too much information;
- distraction - 47% of respondents reported being distracted from their main tasks;
- stress - leading to tension with colleagues, loss of job satisfaction, ill-health (reported by 42%), reduced social activity (61%), and tiredness (60%)
The role of technology
Information and communication technologies are now the main delivery mechanisms for the management and communication of information in organizations of all kinds. It is not surprising, therefore, to find these technologies blamed for information overload. However, technology is only a tool and overload is caused by the misuse of the technology, rather than by any inherent characteristic. We can add to misuse design characteristics of the software that make misuse easy.
E-mail is one of the prime candidates as a factor in information overload and both misuse and poor design feature in this IT application. Misuse occurs, for example, when individuals use the Reply to all button, resulting in a trivial messaage about, for example, being unable to attend a meeting, being sent to everyone on the mailing list through which the original message was received. Poor design may also be involved here: it would hardly be difficult to present a warning when the Reply to all button was hit, saying, in effect, Do you really want this to go to the 65 people on the mailing list? Poor design also features in relation to attachments, which may be automatically attached to the reply or to a forwarded message, when the content of the message does not require it.
Mobile (cell) phones also feature in the information overload picture. The situation is a little different from e-mail, however; the main problem is that organizational workers in the middle and higher management levels are expected to be always available. As a result, what leisure time they have can be interrupted by phone calls and many managers are afraid to turn off their phones in case they are perceived as not fitting in with the company ethos. In work carried out in a major international bank, Allen and Wilson comment on a staff member who (like all managers at her level) took her mobile phone on holiday, but took her holidays in places like Peru and Nepal, where it was difficult, if not impossible, to receive a signal.
Heylighen summarises as impact of technology as follows:
Part of the problem is caused by the fact that technological advances have made the retrieval, production and distribution of information so much easier than in earlier periods. This has reduced the natural selection processes which would otherwise have kept all but the most important information from being published. The result is an explosion in often irrelevant, unclear and inaccurate data fragments, making it ever more difficult to see the forest through the trees. This overabundance of low quality information, which Shenk  has called "data smog", is comparable in its emergence and effects to the pollution of rivers and seas caused by an excess of fertilizers, or to the health problems caused by a diet too rich in calories. The underlying mechanism may be called "overshooting": because progress has inertia, the movement in a given direction tends to continue even after the need has been satisfied. Whereas information used to be scarce, and having more of it was considered a good thing, it seems that we now have reached the point of saturation, and need to limit our use of it.
Personal traits and information overload
Although we identify business pressures and information and communication technologies as significant factors in information overload, it is clear that not everyone in an organization suffers to the same degree. In other words, personal traits enter the picture.
Thus, we can identify individuals who contribute to information overload through 'information push' and 'information pull' and we can identify certain organizational characteristics that relate to these personal traits. Thus, information overload is increased in an organization when individuals feel a need to 'push' information to others. This will typically occur when someone feels a need to be visible to other organizational members, to demonstrate that he or she is working on a problem or a project, or to defend themselves against the impact of organizational politics of one kind or another. Information push typically involves using the 'Reply to all' button on e-mail messages, whether it is appropriate or not, or sending documents to others in advance of meetings to garner support or approval before the meeting (this was described by one interviewee in the bank study mentioned earler as, 'syndicating risk': that is, spreading responsibility for decision making where the decision might be risky for the individual concerned.
Information 'pull' happens for similar reasons: individuals may feel that their positions are at risk if they do not maintain communication links throughout the organization. Thus, they will sign up for mailing lists, whether or not these relate directly to their roles or projects. Inevitably, the resulting load of e-mail messages, minutes of minutes and document attachments means that such individuals are subject to information overload.
Coping with information overload
The first step to take in coping with information overload is to understand it as a symptom of more significant organzational problems. Consequently, overload cannot be dealt with at the personal level if the dominant causes are organizational. Given that the organizational ethos and culture can be the principal causes, we might expect that remedial action is difficult to take: it is not easy to change culture. If, however, an organization perpetuates a 'blame' culture, in which individuals fear to take risks, we can expect information overload to occur. Similarly, if re-organization and downsizing are typical responses to organizational problems or to short-term fluctuations of the share price, then individuals will be fearful regarding their jobs and, again, information overload is likely to develop in the organization. These factors, coupled with an ethos of overwork and the intrusion of the organization into the individuals' personal time and space, can only be resolved by leadership from the top to drive out these aberrant practices.
Of course, there are possible remedial actions at the individual level: first, you can monitor your own communication behaviour and determine the extent to which information push and pull affect you. Are you sending messages to distribution lists for the sake of simplicity, instead of sending them to specific individuals who actually need to know? Are you on more distribution lists than you need to be? Do some of these relate to previous roles in the organization or to projects of which you were a member, but are no longer? Can you identify individuals who send you material or copy you into their mailings, when you don't need to know?
Secondly, middle managers can monitor the impact of information overload on themselves and upon the organization and, if they recognize the causal factors, can initiate debate in the organization about the deleterious affects of overload and on how to resolve organizational problems that give rise to overload.
In other words, information overload does not need to be accepted as a given of organizational life: action can be taken to identify the causes and resolve the problem.
- de Solla Price, D.J. (1963). Little Science, Big Science. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
- Wilson, T.D. (2001). Information overload: implications for healthcare services. Health Informatics Journal, 7, 112-117.
- Jenkins, C.P. (1997). Downsizing or dumbsizing? The restructuring of corporate America. Brigham Young Magazine, 51(1) Available http://magazine.byu.edu/?act=view&a=435 Accessed 24 July, 2008 (Archived by WebCite® at http://www.webcitation.org/5ZY7IqC55)
- Waddington, P. (1997) Dying for information? A report on the effects of information overload in the UK and world-wide. In Beyond the Beginning: The Global Digital Library: an international conference organised by Ukoln on behalf of JISC, CNI, BLRIC, CAUSE and CAUL 16th and 17th JUNE 1997 at THE Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, London, UK. Available http://www.cni.org/regconfs/1997/ukoln-content/repor~13.html Accessed 24 July, 2008 (Archived by WebCite® at http://www.webcitation.org/5ZYdhLrdl)
- Allen, D. and Wilson, T.D. ( 2003). Information overload: context and causes. New Review of Information Behaviour Research, 4, 31-44
- Heylighen, F. Change and information overload: negative effects, in F Heylighen, C Joslyn, and V Turchin, eds., Principia Cybernetica Web. Brussels: Principia Cybernetica. Available http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/CHINNEG.html Accessed 27 July, 2008. . (Archived by WebCite® at http://www.webcitation.org/5ZcvsCblB)