What is Worse Than Information Overload?

At times we all feel we are in information overload. There are so many facts and details we need to consider when making decisions it can seem overwhelming.

This week I found a magazine article dealing with this problem. Written by two information technology professionals, it states a researcher:

“…categorizes one contributing factor to information overload as ‘electronic junk’ … users can be expected to be imposed on by unwanted and useless messages.”

The authors also said:

“The feature cited as most useless or distracting was annoyance with members who sent ‘junk messages’ or made ‘off-the-wall comments’ or ‘cute remarks’ rather than problems.”

Sound familiar? What caught my eye about the article is that it was written in July 1985, almost 10 years before most of us had access to the internet in our homes and nearly 19 years before the advent of Facebook. I wonder what they would say today.

I think there is a more significant problem than information overload and one which is just as common. I’ll refer to it as Information Underload, the lack of enough information to make a good decision.

Information underload causes us to struggle when making decisions without having all the necessary information. This can be caused by roadblocks to the information within our organization or by a lack of effort to gather the information. When this happens, we fill in the gaps by assuming what we think is happening. Unfortunately, these assumptions are often faulty and can distract us from the real nature of the problem.

No one can make a good decision without all relevant information. That is what separates decision making from guesswork. Individuals and teams need access to the facts and data related to the issues being considered. All information needs to be shared with those involved in studying a problem and making decisions. We may need to stop a meeting to get the needed facts, or even come back at a later meeting with the data.

The concerns we often attribute to information overload can be resolved with an organized approach. First, separate the useful information from the clutter of irrelevant messages. These could include rumors, information not relevant to the problem, or assumptions and conjecture. These things just get in the way.

Next, we need to find ways to categorize and make sense of the remaining information. Problem solving tools such as Pareto analysis, affinity diagrams, relationship diagrams, and cause and effect analysis are simple tools to help better understand what is happening.

Information underload can stymie your team. When solving problems, it is essential that you and your team have access to all relevant information. It can take more time and work, but it is essential. A good facilitator (like CALMC) can help your team determine the necessary information and do the appropriate analysis.


Reference: Hiltz, S.R. and Turoff, M. (1985), Structuring computer-mediated communication systems to avoid information overload. Communications of the ACM, 680-689.

About CALMC Blog

Columbus Area Labor-Management Committee is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to involving employers and employees to preserve jobs, resolve workplace issues, and promote labor-management cooperation. Visit our website at http://calmc.org
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