Tech giants tackle information overload

Nonprofit Information Overload Research Group--whose members include Microsoft Research, IBM, and Google employees--holds its first conference this week in New York.

Holly Jackson
4 min read

Your BlackBerry buzzes with a text from your boss, snapping you out of your Twitter-surfing trance. Your friend calls you and tells you to check out his Facebook profile, as you respond to your spouse's instant message about dinner plans. All the while, your in-box is overflowing with new e-mail messages.

If humans were like computers, our screens would be frozen--overloaded by information and too much multitasking.

The term "information overload" has floated around for years and been the topic of much analysis, but the situation remains. According to recent research by enterprise research firm Basex, these distractions are now costing the American economy more than $650 billion in lost productivity, and taking up 28 percent of workers' time.

"If you can't devote four hours a week to not getting e-mails, then you have a very special job--you're a brain surgeon on call or you control the button that launches the nuclear missile."
--Nathan Zeldes, president, IORG

Such numbers led Intel engineer Nathan Zeldes and other tech industry insiders to form the new Information Overload Research Group. The nonprofit consortium--whose members include Microsoft Research, IBM, and Google employees--held its first conference this week in New York, with members meeting at sessions with titles like "No Time to Think" and "Visionary Vendors."

Now that the group has had its inaugural gathering, Zeldes, its president, said IORG will continue to recruit members and financial sponsors from a scope of business sectors. With more minds applied to finding a solution to what IORG calls "the world's greatest challenge to productivity," Zeldes hopes to generate innovative ideas that can benefit both businesses and individuals.

"Hopefully in a year or two we'll be where major organizations, governments, wherever, that need information about information overload will come to us," Zeldes said.

IORG's view is that solutions come in two forms. The first are physical restrictions on e-mail or Internet use. Companies, for example, are starting to employ pilots like "quiet time" at Intel or "no e-mail Fridays" at other companies to allow workers to focus.

"They work in offline mode; they turn their telephone to voice mail. They sit and devote their time to whatever work they have to do that requires contiguous thinking and concentration," Zeldes said.

"The longest time (without e-mailing) was four hours," he added. "If you can't devote four hours a week to not getting e-mails, then you have a very special job--you're a brain surgeon on call or you control the button that launches the nuclear missile."

The other solution comes in the form of what many technology companies do best--creating software and add-ons to organize information. Xerox, a sponsor and new member of IORG, is in the process of developing software, like smart documents, that compile information into a flexible, sharable, single file.

"I think it is great...that information keeps exploding and the mound of information that's available to all of us. The challenge is that I only have a limited amount of time, so how do I get to what I need?" said Sophie Vandebroek, Xerox's chief technology officer. "We apply our unique smart document technology methodologies to really help our customers quickly get to the right information that they need to successfully run their business."

With a reported 281,000 terabytes of information created worldwide in 2007, streamlining and compiling data with software is one way technology can wrangle the information influx, Vanderbroek says.

Of course, given that most of the parties involved in the IORG have created hardware and software that contributes to information overload, one might question why those same people would want to hinder it.

Watch this: The perils of information overload

"That's one way to look at it," Zeldes said. "On the other hand, a large corporation in the tech industry has tens or hundreds of thousands of people, and if they lose 28 percent of their time to distraction, that's 28 percent of their time at full pay that they aren't producing any value for the employer. The corporations have to think about that, too."

Companies also have to think about balancing their employees' lives. Information overload outside of work, like using a BlackBerry on weekends or vacations, could hinder the work-life balance, leading to decreased worker satisfaction. Zeldes also points out the problem is not just affecting technology companies or large corporations.

"The truth is, we do see people from other industries, and from personal experience, this problem affects everyone in all segments," he said. "Over the last two years I've been working with people from different organizations and that included everyone from the U.S. Army to the Salvation Army, literally."

Some people doubt that masses of information are a problem. In 2005, Microsoft founder Bill Gates claimed information overload was overblown. In the Harvard Business Review blog, editor Paul Hemp asked, "What's so bad about information overload?" Instead of trying to fix the problem, he wrote, we should learn to cope and be thankful for the abundant information available. Even IORG member Vanderbroek refused to call it a "monster."

"Personally I do not call it information overload; I call it a great opportunity that there is information exploding," Vanderbroek said. "It is all about being able, as an individual, to not let information overload you."

Added Zeldes: "The direct approach is to optimize--to make it so these e-mail and all these other tools are extremely useful to people, so they will continue to use them. But we want to make it so they use (them) effectively and happily and have a balanced life."