Challenges in making decisions due to too much available information — And what to do about it
Information overload, also known as infobesity, infoxication, information glut, data smog, and information tsunami, among other trendy terms, basically means reduced understanding and decision making capacity due to having too much information than can be processed. First discovered in psychology, information overload has demonstrated that even the most intelligent and upstanding people can have problems with acting appropriately (or even acting at all) when they are faced with too many choices or situational issues that overwhelm them.
As you can imagine, this is a huge problem for us today. In a VUCA world (borrowing a term from the military parlance) — a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world a.k.a “It’s a crazy world” — like ours today means that decision making needs to be responsive and on point in order to drive businesses forward.
Another problem compounding work and decision making is the issue of “information anxiety”, where there is a gap between what we believe we should understand and what we actually do know. There is massive pressure, as we are told “better more information than less” and spend hours try to load up on more information from emails, blogs, books, podcasts, book summaries, news sites, social media and other sources, even if it may not be directly relevant to what we’re doing. Not only is this practice distracting, it is a form of cognitive overloading that affects thinking and productivity.
5 main causes of information overload today
There are many causes contributing to the dire state of information overload, though there are five causes causing this shift. From macro changes to micro changes in the business environment, these causes are pervasive through every level of management and across industries.
- The changing nature of work
The world is increasingly becoming a global economy, with global customers and cross-border communication and travel 24/7/365 across the team. Even small and medium businesses today are finding that their trade is cross-country and they frequently have to be aware of customers’ and partners’ time zones when working with them; the larger the corporation, the more this would hold true.
This means that there is greater complexity and more requirements to deal with, in order to fulfill our objectives. Not only do we have to deal with temporal differences, there are also cultural differences to read up on, more laws and taxes to understand, specific requests to cater to, and customer support tickets to respond to round the clock.
In addition, teams are adapting to cope with the changes in this globalized economy, taking on remote workers, demanding greater flexibility in work arrangements such as telecommuting and hotdesking (among others), and lobbying for a bigger push towards work-life integration. With more remote collaboration, more documents are being created and stored in large drives that are often complicated and intricately organized, leading to overlap in work that has already been done, and making it harder to find information in general.
All of these changing aspects of work are causing anxiety in people who feel there is always something more they need to know, and more to do, even in their downtime.
2. Big data and computing power
It’s no longer a secret that “big data is the future” or some similarly grandiose declaration about the necessity and importance of data in running businesses. With the rise in computing power, right down to the devices we hold in our palms today, more data is generated and more data can be analyzed, quicker.
However, having the potential to do it quicker doesn’t always mean analysis is getting better. Unstructured data in text is exploding across increasing numbers of customer-facing channels, on top of more operational data being collected from connected devices. This is causing a glut of data that can be hard to sift through and categorize for any disambiguation to happen at any level meaningful for the business.
There is now a stronger need for data-driven decision making, since this smorgasbord of data sources can reveal unprecedented patterns that otherwise might have been missed by making decisions by gut alone. This is definitely a welcome trend, though it is amplifying the effect of information overload by conditioning knowledge workers to think “all data is good data” when this is, in fact, not the case in most situations. Usually, there are vast amounts of misleading and non-essential data that may pollute decisions rather than promote them.
3. Consumer expectations and workload
Consumers today are spoilt, many of us included; not only are we spoilt for choice due to the globalizing economy, we are also spoilt in the sense of expecting higher levels of service in quick responses, fast resolutions, and even immediate refunds or replacements upon complaining.
Therefore, there actually is an increase in the workload for most businesses as they have to deal with more customer requests. Higher expectations by customers also signify bigger outlays required to staff support teams, and margin squeeze due to costs related to keeping customers happy so they continue to purchase.
Also, customers are less likely to be loyal to specific products, hence there needs to be more creative (or expensive) ways to retain and continually attract customers back to the business. More planning and decision making is needed, whether based on past customer data or financial data within the business to continue running profitably.
4. Compliance and transparency
To make matters even more dire for most knowledge workers today, there is also a stricter bar for compliance and controls within companies today (imposed by auditors or regulators). On top of the information that passes through their hands day in and day out, they have to find a way to log all these information comprehensively. An essential part of risk management practices today, compliance can lead to additional stockpiles of information while reducing the attention that people pay to similar information.
With more employees clamoring for transparency and openness, businesses today are also under pressure to share more information and openly communicate about decisions, policies, changes, improvements and other areas of the business. Not only do employees receive more and more memos, executives also feel the need to listen to more feedback and communicate about their reactions to them. These are worthy steps towards better workplaces and cultures, though the downside is being barraged with even more information to pay attention to.
5. More communication mediums
To help businesses cope with this barrage of information, companies such as Slack, and other chat products, have emerged. These new communication mediums have been proven to come with issues of their own, as employees now feel obliged to tune in more often, around the clock. They may feel pressured to respond more, and respond quickly due to the more synchronous nature of chat conversations.
There are three main problems with this mode of communication: With so much noise, it’s hard to determine what went on in the conversation before they dropped in; they may have to spend time deciding if messages are important enough to be responded to immediately; and they may not be sufficiently processing information before replying, leading to lower response quality across the board.
The impacts of information overload
Research has shown that 25% of a knowledge worker’s day is spent just finding information — Just think about this for a minute. Across the business, people are spending an entire quarter of their time just trawling for information hidden somewhere in their emails, files, chat conversations, and other sources. This is a quarter of a day that could have been spent working on something higher value or more productive.
Related to looking for information is the very real problem of distractions and multitasking at work. There are studies on distractions that shows that people are distracted almost every 3 minutes and 5 seconds by the buzzing of their phones of a new message or email, people walking around the office, and similar phenomena in the office. If they are not distracted by others, workers are so used to the constant distraction that they end up distracting themselves too. Each distraction takes another 23 minutes and 15 seconds on average to refocus on the task at hand, until they are distracted by another stimuli again.
Since employees are looking for information across a wide variety of sources, they are more likely to be distracted and brought off-track by something they see, and are more likely to have multiple tabs open. Multitasking has also been cited to damage the brain and lower overall productivity by 40%.
Employee engagement also tends to suffer due to frustrations over duplicate work, gaps in knowledge, higher stress levels potentially resulting in aggression, and contradictory decision making that work against teams internally. Work-life balance may also take a hit with the ongoing need to tune in constantly, and may affect sleep quality, reducing work performance.
The most grievous affliction comes in the form of reduced decision making capacity. Information anxiety is inflicting stress on knowledge workers today who believe they need to have a handle on all these sources of information despite the sheer volume and copious amount of analysis to turn information into knowledge. Analysis paralysis (also the paradox of choice) often ensues, causing many to make subpar decisions while in a condition of cognitive overloading.
Let’s say you are choosing a car. You either get a fact sheet with 6 main features that you care about, like the fuel efficiency, color and a sunroof; or another with 24 features chock full of information about the transmission, emission values, chassis weight and so on and so on. With the 24 features list, you are probably more likely to give up on choosing, or simply only look at the features you cared about anyway.
This is the same for deciding on plans in business: With more moving parts, the more decisions need to be made, with more information input, and more confusion — and these decisions may just end up being made like the car choice you just (fictionally) made. A related problem is the fact that workers are also less likely to have time to sit back and really think about things, which means less strategically-sound actions and more reactive work.
Some solutions to information overload
With so much at stake at the whims of information overload today, there needs to be a more tailored and manageable approach to working with information. While there are no “definitive” solutions yet, there are many products out there that can relieve some of these issues now.
Knowledge management systems, as you may have already realized, aren’t necessarily effective by themselves. Besides investing a good knowledge management system, it’s important to train and monitor the information being added to the system periodically. While many files should be saved for compliance and posterity, these should be encouraged to go into a “data dump” and working files should go into a central area for easy access. It is also important to establish proper naming and cataloguing practices, so as to take the fullest advantage of the search functionalities that come with most systems.
Data dashboards are also another important source of distilled information. Since most dashboards we have seen in our lives are what have been dubbed “custom data pukes”, where information have simply been dumped on a page and made to look impressive, data analysts and associates need to be held to higher standards when creating dashboards. By always asking how this will quantitatively affect the business bottomline and strategy first and foremost, effort can be expended on analyzing and turning over only the right knowledge to key decision makers in the business.
Finding the right data analysts and data-driven team members in this case, then, should also be a key focus. There are trained analysts who can handle big data, and the challenge becomes imbuing them with business logic and obsessive doggedness about using these vast amounts of data to extract only important insights and actionable recommendations for decision makers.
Apart from humans, you may also consider virtual data assistants. Even the CEOs of Slack and Box feel like things will change with more intelligent bots automating questions from employees, so there is an always-on assistant that can respond with information needed based on the query asked of it. They believe that this artificial intelligence will ease information overload in the long run, and it’s easy to imagine how this could seamlessly fit into our daily workflows eventually. Arria, Narrative Science and Automated Insights, are products that help to turn data sets into readable text explanations.
Products from customer support companies also help to automate customer engagement using bots, so workers can focus more on other non-repetitive tasks instead. Increasingly, this technology is also more democratized such that they can help you to set up a bot to answer repetitive FAQ questions in just 5 minutes.
Slack Digest / Digest.ai are products that prioritize the conversations that go on in your team daily, so you can get the most relevant summary of what happened in your conversations, even if you’re not actively monitoring them. Many teams have jumped on these products as a way to get insightful updates to their Slack channels, and it’s not a stretch to see them personalizing your summaries even more based on your role and interests in the near future.
The future of the world lies in being able to better capture and summarize information for better decision making. Start taking a step to better strategy and bottomline today by managing information overload better in your team!