Dealing with Information Overload

By Paul Chin

Originally published in Intranet Journal (18-Jul-2005)

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Is there such a thing as having too much intranet content? Intranets have been touted as a cost-effective content management solution for most companies—regardless of size and industry—because of their flexibility and scalability. They can be developed and molded to solve almost any organizational problem with a much lower total cost of ownership (TCO) when compared to purchasing multiple third-party software suites.

But have we crossed the line from productivity to inefficiency by the sheer amount of information that we put into our intranets? And I'm not even talking about the extraneous content (content that should never make it onto the intranet to begin with) I'm talking about actual usable content. In an attempt to provide as much information to our users, in as wide a range of topics as possible, have we actually done everyone a disservice by putting in more content than any one person can absorb? But herein lies the point: no one is meant to.

It's time we all take a different approach; to look at this "problem" from another angle. Rather than worrying about the amount of intranet content placed into an intranet, we should be questioning the manner in which we handle this content in our daily lives. After all, when dealing with a flood, you don't curse the water, you figure out a way to keep it from swallowing you whole.

Don't Let Information Direct You

My morning information consumption ritual usually consists of sifting through both current events and industry news—and there's a lot of it. I spend no more than five seconds on any one article, reading the headline and taking a cursory glance at the lead-in. If the article doesn't interest me within that short window of opportunity, the <DELETE> key gets a little workout.

However, a few times I found myself staring at—or more accurately, staring through—my monitor as though it were a fish tank, tapping away at the <DELETE> without even reading the title. In short, I "zoned out." Does all of this extraneous content take focus away from primary information that has direct relevance to the here and now?

In between the myriad of newsletters, RSS feeds, personal and professional e-mails, and recently, the real-time newsflashes of the Tour de France bicycle race that I've convinced myself is an integral part of my productive work day, I have hundreds of pieces of information to digest every morning. Some are discarded without thought while others are filed away to be read and dealt with at a later time. But I know full well that I'll never get to it because tomorrow morning there will be newer pieces of information to take its place. Sometimes, by the end of the day, it feels as though I've been in constant motion but have accomplished little.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where more is better. Intranet owners pack every bit of information onto their CMS if it has even a whisper of relevance. And for the users' part, they squirrel away as much content as they can even though they know that it's never going to be read or put to use. So why do we do this? We do it out of fear. It's not a fear like the one invoked by the Bogeyman when we were children; it's the fear of missing out on something and being out of the loop. And this is the true problem; it's us, not the content.

Dr. Edward M. Hallowell and Dr. John Ratey—professors of psychiatry at Harvard who have studied the effects of technology on our attention spans and ability to focus on key tasks—coined the term pseudo-attention deficit disorder (ADD). While sufferers of this condition don't actually have clinical ADD, they do experience a shortened attention span. They're often unable to focus on primary tasks without compulsively checking their e-mail, v-mail, and surfing for secondary bits of information. Dr. Ratey equates the feeling of being constantly connected to technology and information to the sensation of getting a narcotics hit, or what he calls getting a "dopamine squirt."

Rampant multitasking and a deluge of available information have produced a counterproductive culture and created a paradox: The more we try to do, the less we get done; and the more inundated we are with information, the less time we spend absorbing it.

Where and How Do You Get Your Content?

Having a wealth of useful, relevant intranet content shouldn't be looked on as a burden. It's the hallmark of a successful intranet-based CMS. An intranet can be used handle the technology side of content management, but what about us? How do we handle this content? Regardless of an intranet's ability to hold, organize, and disseminate vast stores of information, there needs to be a person on the other end to make sense of it all. If you feel overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the available information, perhaps you need to take a step back and review how you access this information.

An intranet can contain hundreds of thousands of pieces of information, and an equal number of ways in which to access it. And with the increased popularity of RSS feeds, you don't even have to lift a finger to get to it. But this ease of content retrieval has made many users compulsive about their need for information.

Users find information in their intranet using three broad methods: Targeting, discovery, and delivered.

This is information that intranet users explicitly seek. They access their intranet with a clear goal, navigate to the content they're after, and then carry on with what they were doing before they went onto the intranet. This is the most focused way to retrieve information because users have a specific and targeted goal.

Content discovery is great when users don't have any specific content in mind. Unlike targeting content, discovered content isn't explicitly sought but rather "stumbled" across while navigating the intranet or en route to a targeted location. While content discovery enables intranet users to find useful pieces of information they didn't know existed, there's a high probability of getting sidetracked unless the user remains focused. It's very easy to enter an intranet with a clear goal but end up with an entirely different set of content—sometimes even forgetting the original goal.

This is information that's delivered to users—RSS feeds, e-mail newsletters, or through various push technology products—without them having to actively seek it out. This allows intranet content owners to deliver or broadcast content to the user community based on user-defined areas of interest. But with this ease comes a price. The volume of delivered content can become overwhelming for the end-user and cause workflow disruptions. And once this momentum is broken, it's often difficult to get it back.

Getting a Handle on Your Content

Every intranet user has their own way of handling the content they pull off of, or receive from, their intranet. Some users are extremely focused and don't get distracted easily. Others tend to get bogged down by the amount of available content and are driven to hair pulling and teeth gnashing.

You shouldn't allow the abundance of content to work against you. Instead, change the way in which you manage it. Here are some simple, yet effective tips:

Closing Thoughts

An intranet can hold as much content as server disk space affords. When you run out of space, you can always add more. But as human beings we don't have the same luxury. With all the information and work we already have to deal with on a daily basis, you don't want your intranet content to cause a meltdown.

Don't curse an intranet for having an abundance of information. As a CMS, that's the system's job: To manage information. But you have your part in this too. Content is placed into an intranet to suit as wide an audience as possible—it's up to you to decide what's applicable to you and not to feel the need to become a sponge. If you do, you're going to end up changing the "M" in CMS from "management" to "migraine".

Copyright © 2005 Paul Chin. All rights reserved.
Reproduction of this article in whole or part in any form without prior written permission of Paul Chin is prohibited.