A search for the term “information overload” in Google returns 3.68 million results, the second of which is a good definition of the problem: “exposure to or provision of too much information or data.” Wikipedia expands on the issue by defining it as “…a term used to describe the difficulty of understanding an issue and effectively making decisions when one has too much information about that issue. Generally, the term is associated with the excessive quantity of daily information.”
While the definitions are accurate, the fundamental issue with information overload is not really a problem with having too much information. Instead, it’s that we don’t have information curated in such a way as to present a limited set of the right information. For example, when I type “who starred in the movie grand prix” into Google, the first thing that shows up are photos of the cast. Google also provided many pages of additional search results, but curated a limited set of options that were most relevant to my inquiry, and it was the first one that satisfied that query. So, if Google had returned 300,000 other links and images, I would not have been overloaded with information because I could disregard everything but the right answer presented to me at the top of the list.
Similarly, if I need to find an email I sent to a prospect three days ago, does it matter if I have 36,745 emails in my inbox if my search returns just the email I was seeking? Not really.
So, what we’re really talking about with information overload is a lack of good search and good curation, which often begins with inadequate archiving of the right information. In the workplace, that lack of good search, curation and archiving manifests itself in a number of ways, most notably in the amount of time that employees spend searching for information. For example, a Software Advice survey found that some employees spend at least six hours per week searching for paper documents. A McKinsey report discovered that employees spend an average of 9.3 hours per week searching and gathering information. When it comes to information that is even more difficult to find, such as the job and client experience of my fellow employees that I might bring to bear on solving a problem, it may take even longer to find this information, if I can find it at all. Add to this the problem of information held in various silos across the enterprise and the situation becomes untenable, leading to regulatory, legal and employee productivity problems of various types.
Consequently, information overload really is not a thing — but inadequate search, curation and archiving definitely is.