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The Challenge of Information Overload and the Opportunity of Abundance

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published July 25, 2011 on the SLA Future Ready 365 Blog as Designing for flow: Part 1 Big Opportunities for Information Professionals.

Information professionals have always played a critical role supporting knowledge workers. Today, that role is more important than ever as future-ready solutions are implemented.

As digital information proliferates, businesses and their knowledge workers are confronted with unprecedented information management challenges. These challenges arise not just from the sheer volume of information, but also the number of sources that produce it and the number of locations or devices where this information is consumed.

As organizations grapple with the consequences, information professionals play a critical leadership role in the solution. There is a massive opportunity to impact personal and organizational performance throughout their organizations.

This post explores the nature of the challenge presented by information overload (and the opportunity of information abundance) and why information professionals must play a leading role in the solution.

It is no small irony that today we have unprecedented access to information and yet it always seems so difficult to maintain awareness of the information that really matters to us and drives organizational performance. Consider the results of a study by Xerox that reported that 53% of the knowledge workers surveyed believe that half of the information they receive is valuable. The study also revealed that organizations believe that time constraints and lack of understanding of how to find information is preventing their employees from finding the information they need to do their jobs. This topic is explored in greater detail in the Attensa White Paper: Reducing Information Overload in the Enterprise.

Why is information so poorly targeted? It is easy to lay complete blame on information overload, which is unquestionably a major issue. However, the fundamental issue is our inability to filter and discern the information that matters. In other words, the killer app in the era of information overload will deliver relevance. Information professionals are ideally suited to deliver this to the people they serve.

Today, with the right tools, you can deliver the right information to the right people and build a flexible foundation that is future ready. Implementing these tools and strategies can be done incrementally and is not complex. We find that with many of our customers relatively simple first steps create immediate business benefits.

Why Existing Approaches and Tools Aren’t Working

Before considering solutions, it is worth exploring why existing approaches and information content providers are failing to fully address the problem. One of the fundamental reasons is that current solutions were designed on the premise of information scarcity rather than information abundance. This paradigm shift has been occurring for the past couple of decades, fueled by the digitalization and networking of content and the new communications and publishing tools that have decentralized and democratized publishing. More disruptive change is clearly on the way, as ebooks evolve and content in general is further atomized. This shift not only requires new tools, but a new perspective.

From Managing Sources to Managing the Flow of Information

This shift is perhaps best captured by the authors of The Power of Pull who observe that Information now flows like water and we must learn to tap into its stream. In the era of information abundance, the traditional information supply lanes are blurred.  Unless that fundamental issue is addressed, getting the right information to the right people at the right time is extremely difficult.

By the same token, leveraging the notion of flow with the right tools will enable information professionals to effectively manage and deliver information in new and impactful ways. With the right tools:

  • information from different sources inside and outside the organization can be filtered and managed in a unified way;
  • simple software-enabled processes can streamline the work of information professionals and simplify the lives of information consumers;
  • the information that matters can be delivered to people in appropriate places rather than requiring them to look for it; and
  • intelligent software can help people focus their attention on important information and help organizations utilize the knowledge that exists throughout their organizations.

Information professionals can and should be at the epicenter of this shift. It should a fun ride.

In Part II of Designing for Information Flow, I will describe how these tools and future-ready design principles can be easily integrated with existing systems and information sources. In the meantime, feel free to call contact me with any questions or comments.

Charlie Davidson is the CEO of Attensa, an enterprise software company solving the problem of information overload for businesses and professionals. He serves on the Steering Committee for the Information Overload Research Group and is also a member of the Oregon and Washington State Bar Associations. Charlie can be reached at on Twitter @CharlieDavidson or at +1 971.340.2000 ext. 100.