Fighting IO: a Sisyphean or a Herculean challenge?

I’ve been engaged in the battle on Information Overload since 1995, when it exploded across Intel – where I was Computing Productivity manager at the time – with the now familiar devastation to people’s effectiveness and quality of life. In the 15 years since then I’ve driven a variety of solution efforts at various companies; I’ve communicated with scores of like minded professionals fighting IO around the world, exchanging and developing new solutions; and I’ve had the pleasure of co-founding the Information Overload Research Group with some of them. With all this activity, and the introspection a new year calls for, the question comes to mind: are we winning or losing?

At one level, it would seem we’re certainly not winning: Information Overload remains a rampant issue, affecting Knowledge Workers in organizations of every kind across the globe. If anything, it is worse than it was in 1995; certainly the estimates of the cost to Industry, as calculated by Basex, are rising with the years. And the arrival of new communications channels – Facebook, for one – only adds opportunities for overload. In the face of this rising flood of comms, it might seem that we’re engaged in a Sisyphean task, destined to forever try to solve a problem that will just get worse.

And yet, a better metaphor would be the labors of Hercules. Indeed, resolving  Information Overload is a Herculean task, not only because of the extent of the issue but also because of its complexity: we humans depend on communications by our very nature as a social animal, and our modern business world could not survive without the  very email, telephony and internet channels that we complain about. This isn’t a problem to be eradicated; it is a question of optimization, of striking the correct balance between too much and too little communication, of modifying the culture of groups and the behavior of individuals ever so carefully… and in this battle, we are making progress. The overload may be rising, but more slowly than it would have absent our efforts. In the nineties people were suffering from IO but organizations were mostly in denial or ignorance about it; people willing to take action were few and far between. Today there is a widespread recognition of this problem, and a growing number of companies are taking serious steps to mitigate it. Methodologies are researched and published, software solutions are developed and marketed, books and articles are increasing in number… and success stories are slowly accumulating. IO has moved from being a problem individual workers complain about in private to one that employers are working to solve in the open. We’ve come a long way…

And of course, we have our own Information Overload Research Group – which is poised to extend its activity and influence in 2011. We may still have those stables to clean and many monsters to slay… but remember: Hercules did complete the mission in the end (and get the rewards).

Have a happy and successful 2011!