Too much information? (inspired by “Knowledge Jolt with Jack: Survey: Information overload”)

In recent post, Jack posted a link to a survey being conducted by Marvin Rosenburg on, you guessed it, information overload. Specifically, the survey seeks to gather information on which countermeasures (see below) are most effective:

  1. Personal Factors
  2. Information Characteristics
  3. Task and Process Parameters
  4. Organizational Design
  5. Information Technology

While this particular survey, and in fact most discussions of the topic, focus on the effect of information load on individual knowledge workers, I think it is worthwhile to look at the issue from an organizational standpoint.

When I first became seriously interested in how the human brain, and mind, work I obviously did a lot of reading. One of the facts that stuck with me was the comparison of how much information the human body, brain included, actually receives and processes compared to the amount of information a typical person is consciously aware of. The body/brain recieves millions of bits of information per second, yet we (the conscious part of the system) can only effectively keep about 4 things in our personal RAM (according to David Allen in Getting Things Done).

Organizations, especially large, complex organizations, are not much different. The leadership focuses on a few key things at a time, for the most part ignoring how the parts of the organization are actually getting things done. Assuming the leaders have done their job, the parts are well trained and capable of nearly autonomous action.

Information overload, from an complex system/organization standpoint, occurs when the constant input being received is not properly processed and ends up in – or not very far removed from – its raw form in the “conscious” part. As an example, imagine that every bit of information detected by your skin – the air blowing across the hairs on your arm, the pressure of your fingertips on the keyboard, the tightness or looseness of your clothes – ended up in your conscious thoughts. You would not be able to function because all your RAM was taken up. Now imagine that you had to consciously process everything little thing you hear, see, smell. That is information overload. (According to various sources and based on personal experience, this is what it is like to be autistic, unable to effectively process input.)

The answer, then, is to figure out how to effectively process the information that comes in. Some of this is built in, some of this is learned (nature vs. nurture). If you are injured, nature takes over and forces you to respond. If your shoelace is coming untied, your learning takes over and brings that bit of sensation to the conscious while continuing to ignore the myriad other inputs to the system.

While the human system has evolved to do what it does over many many many millenia, organizations have to figure it out for themselves over much shorter periods. As I’ve said before, I see Knowledge Management as the “sub-conscious” of an organization, making sure that the routine input is handled properly while the non-routine can be brought to the conscious for appropriate action.

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