Whatever Happened to Information Overload Fever?

By Craig Roth, Gartner, Inc.

Has information overload fever subsided? I have followed the “information overload” movement for over ten years now.  While I’m a sceptic of its “sky is falling” rhetoric I have always acknowledged that knowledge workers find catharsis in complaining about information overload given the chance.

So I was surprised by the results of a Gartner Research Circle member survey of a small group (147 respondents) in August. It found that when considering challenges related to decision-making around data and analysis only 7% said information overload was very challenging versus 25% who said it was not very challenging.  The rest were neutral.

Information overload was put in context of a list of other issues such as ”Lacking the right type of data” (the #1 challenge out of 6 listed) and “Poor data quality” (#2).  Studies angling to show high levels of overload usually just ask “how overloaded are you?” instead of asking in the context of other information management challenges. Perhaps getting the right type of data and more accuracy would improve decisions more than dealing with information overload.

I found this data to be counter to what I tend to read about information overload so I checked up on how the search term is doing. Searches on Gartner.com for “information overload” have been negligible. And where they exist, many seem to be about grabbing attention (how to cut through clutter when blasting messages at buyers) rather than protecting it.

Google Trends data, worldwide, 2004-present, showed that peak interest in the “information overload” term in 2004, although there’s an uptick since COVID-19:

A bit of history may explain the chart. In the early 2000’s a small number of information overload pundits started taking extremist positions. Near the beginning of this chart there were press releases on the “$588 billion cost of interruptions”, which inflated to $650 billion in 2007, then $900 billion for information overload in the U.S. $1 trillion was surely next, but that may have “jumped the shark“.

It succeeded in grabbing attention, getting on talking head news programs, and selling some consulting. But clearly as the estimates of cost to the economy increased the interest decreased.  The term had worn out its welcome.

I don’t want to see it fade away.  While the “information overload” folks sometimes exaggerated, misinterpreted or misapplied the research, the problem statement is still correct. Organizations should do more to improve the productivity and decision making of their workers by addressing the amount of information in their organizations and how workers can deal with it. I am still a proponent of Attention Management, particularly Enterprise Attention Management.

When it comes to dealing with the ever-increasing amount of content and communication channels that knowledge workers face I continue to believe that a management mindset leads to better outcomes than an overload mindset (“Too much!  Turn it down!”).

The management mindset in a nutshell: awareness, measurement, using the levers available to increase the good and decrease the bad of each communication channel, within the context of the goals of the organization

The overload mindset in a nutshell: “Too much!  Turn it down!”

Maybe with COVID-19 forcing us to work from home, the increasing amount of communication done in digital channels will encourage all sides that can help with attention management  to give it some more resources and focus. That would be one positive outcome from an otherwise miserable 2020.