Feature Article - November/December 2009

Information Overload

What Is It Doing to Your Employees?

By Catherine Eberlein Pfister


As a business writer and editor, I've always accepted the fact that managing information content and dealing with information overload are daily issues that come with the territory. There are always going to be multiple (and new) resources available, points of view to consider, ways to approach a topic. All the while dealing within time constraints of doing all of the above and maneuvering through the normal daily interruptions and distractions—some of them important, some of them not.

Then I decided to write this story on information overload and how it affects today's workers. Googling and Binging the term spit out more than 15 million results. And that was just the beginning of the overload avalanche to follow. All in all, the irony of the process hasn't been lost on me: In researching and writing this story about information overload, I increasingly suffered from the effects of it. This story has been restarted and reorganized at least a half-dozen times.

There's some comfort in knowing that I'm definitely not alone in feeling the pain of information overload. Almost no one is immune to it. It impacts organizations and people worldwide, companies small or large, low-tech or high-tech, governmental organizations, educational institutions, religious, military and nonprofit organizations.

In recognizing this growing problem, a group of researchers, practitioners and technologists joined together to form the Information Overload Research Group (IORG) in 2008. The consortium includes Xerox, Microsoft, Intel and IBM, along with other high-tech leaders and members from universities, the U.S. military, the scientific community and solution providers. Their mission? To build awareness of information overload, to discuss its far-reaching impact and to provide solutions.

For awareness starters, nothing quite gets our attention like dollar figures. According to Jonathan Spira, CEO and chief analyst at Basex, a knowledge economy research firm, and a founding IORG member, the latest research shows that information overload costs the U.S. economy a minimum of $900 billion per year in lowered employee productivity and reduced innovation.

While that's a hefty price tag, Spira reflected that it's a fairly conservative number that could be as high as $1 trillion. "It reflects the loss of 25 percent of the knowledge worker's day to the (information overload) problem. Workers spend up to 50 percent of their day managing information." No wonder, then, that Spira refers to this issue as our "National Attention Deficit."