Information rich, attention poor: the danger of information overload
Research shows that ignoring the negative effects of information overload can lead to terrible outcomes, especially as decisions fail to correct a problem
Information overload ("IO") is a common term to most managers, but few of us have ever stopped to consider what the term really means and what impact it may have on our decision-making processes. Professor Peter Gordon Roetzel has studied IO extensively (and especially in the context of decision-support systems) and defines it thus:
Information overload is a state in which a decision-maker faces a set of information (i.e., an information load with informational characteristics such as an amount, a complexity, and a level of redundancy, contradiction and inconsistency) comprising the accumulation of individual informational cues of differing size and complexity that inhibit the decision maker's ability to optimally determine the best possible decision. The suboptimal use of information is caused by the limitation of scarce individual resources. A scarce resource can be limited individual characteristics (such as serial processing ability, limited short-term memory) or limited task-related equipment (e.g., time to make a decision, budget).
There is a lot to unpack in Roetzel's statement, so let's take it one step at a time.
The first part of his definition posits that IO arises when the information that a given individual receives crosses certain thresholds that make it difficult, if not impossible, to process it correctly. These thresholds, in his view, are as follows:
Roetzel does not claim the list to be exhaustive, and we can add at least three other factors that could trigger IO:
Velocity, i.e., the rate of obsolescence of the information makes it difficult or even impossible to process
Accessibility, i.e., the information can only be processed through the acquisition of specialized skills
Bias, i.e., information is consciously (or unconsciously) presented to drive a specific outcome
Whether considering technical innovations like distributed ledgers or social movements for environmental justice, business leaders are surrounded by issues that, unless addressed with care and intelligence, will trigger IO within even the most sophisticated executive.
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