Do not imagine information overload is new. Eight hundred years ago, Vincent of Beauvais, a Dominican friar, related to the challenge in his own era. Noting "the multitude of books, shortness of time and slipperiness of memory," he set about compiling a three-volume, 4.5 million-word encyclopedia of all human knowledge to date.
Today's workers face an increasing onslaught. The blurring of life and remote work intensifies the strains of keeping up. Multitasking exacerbates the burden. Managers must try to help their teams stay on top of the barrage.
Welcome to the zettabyte zone
The era began in 2012, when the amount of digital data first exceeded one zettabyte, equivalent to one sextillion bytes. The pile is forecast to grow to 175 ZB by 2025, so we will create more data in the next three years than was created over the previous 30. Little wonder, with 3 million emails sent per second, 1.8 billion websites and growing, and over 500 hours of content uploaded to YouTube each minute.
Knowledge workers bear the brunt. Where is that 13th-century monk when you need him? More recently, in 1962, Bertram Gross tackled the deluge in his book "The Managing of Organizations." He discussed how information overload ensues when the amount of available information surpasses the mental ability to process it. Yet the paradox of modern technology is that it makes information ever easier to store and share.
Pity the poor rank and file. International Data Corp. reports that the typical employee spends 30% of their work life, or 2.5 hours per day, just finding and digging out information. Likewise, the McKinsey Global Institute found that the average employee spends 13 weekly hours, or 28% of work time, on emails. Sheena Iyengar, a professor at Columbia Business School, suggests that the typical knowledge worker must process the equivalent of 174 newspapers every day, much of it unnecessary or redundant.
Information Overload: Something has to give
On some level, human brains are like machines. If you open too many apps at a time on your laptop, you will slow down its speed and start making absent-minded mistakes. It is easy to be distracted. Before long, the damage will be manifest. Creative problem-solving soon suffers as niggling tasks and brushfires take attention away from strategic priorities.
Managers recognize that their teams have too much shared information and too little time to process it. Some may be relevant yet still overly time-consuming; other irrelevant elements are simply unproductive. The most serious individual and corporate consequences are disengagement, diminished productivity, demotivation — even burnout — and their physical and emotional side effects.
The information surfeit adds up to an urgent set of needs: to develop clarity and focus, sharpen decision quality, and improve communication.
Fighting the flood
You can take practical steps by implementing managerial directives and prompts, such as:
Reviewing and streamlining your internal communications to make sure you are targeting your intended audiences.
Maintaining a central repository where employees can access appropriate information for themselves.
Encouraging your employees to disconnect at the end of their workday and setting a good example by limiting your after-hours messages, emails or phone calls to them.
Instituting "no-meeting Fridays" or some equivalent to create time for catching up and supporting "unplugged time" to discourage the goal of having zero emails in the inbox.
Using analytics or surveys to determine employee preferences and popular content and apps.
Don't just give a person a fish — teach them how to fish instead! Help direct your employees in learning how to regulate inboxes and schedules themselves. Some effective habits to instill are:
Limit research time so employees don't go down a rabbit hole.
Use filters and blockers.
Take breaks, like a walk outside in the fresh air.
Delegate and outsource as your own gatekeeper.
Schedule related tasks together to ease transitioning between them.
Modify consumption by parsing titles, subjects, headers, summary emails and newsletters.
List reliable sources and plan to gain required information ahead of time.
Skim when possible.
No one should drown. Disciplined practices can keep your team afloat on top of the info tsunami.
Need help managing what information to share, when, how, and to whom? Our Nuance Culture Consulting Team can help you create policies and process to help you share the information your employees need while ensuring they are overloaded.