The Cure for Information Overload
Why do we need information?
Everything has to start somewhere and on this page let us begin with the commonly accepted premise that things are changing, and that, by-in-large, change is good and should lead to progress and prosperity, if handled properly.
In order to determine that change exists one must have information about what the change is. What was it like before? What will it be like in the future? The answers to each of these questions provides the information we need to determine what a particular change is, and how it will affect us. Information is therefore an underlying feature of the constant change that is around us.
What is information?
The word "information" has been around for a long time, and has taken on many connotations and subtleties of meaning. In many cases it has been severely overused; Information Technology, Information Age, and Information Systems. But what exactly does it mean, and what is a definition and understanding that we can all work from as a common based.
The Concise Oxford Dictionary provides the following definition:
Information: n. Informing, telling; thing told, knowledge, (desired) items of knowledge, news; information retrieval, tracing of information stored in books, computers, etc.; information theory, quantitative study of transmission of information by signals etc.
Not a very good start in today's context. Let us tighten up this definition a little by adding the connotation that information lies between raw data and acquired knowledge. It is a stepping stone from the data in the world around us, to the application of our knowledge (plus concepts, ethics and morals) in the decisions we make.
Information, therefore comes from a lot of sources, and we each need a lot of information to supplement our knowledge. At one extreme we can operate virtually without external information by working solely within our knowledge boundaries. At the other extreme we may have to operate in a totally unfamiliar environment, with little applicable knowledge, and rely exclusively on external information to make decisions.
In reality we work in a word where there is: "A little from column A and a little from column B". Sometimes we need the external information and sometimes we don't.
Regardless of what we need in the way of information for making a particular decision there is a constant barrage of external factors pushing information upon us. In years gone by it arrived by newspaper, magazine, radio and TV in what seemed to be a manageable amount. Today the streams and variety of media seem to be wider and pumping faster with the Internet (WWW, etc.) leading the way. It may be true that we need more information to make better and more informed decisions in today's business world, but the information coming through is far greater than what may be required. Hence the creation of Information Overload.
On the remainder of this page I will present a method of handling this information barrage while still maintaining the ability to make informed decisions with the best possible information, and still maintaining your sanity!
Building your personal network
You, as an individual, have a unique set of life experiences and education which you apply to your own particular interests, or occupation. Take stock of these in an information flow context. With which ones do you wish to continue to remain up-to-date? Which ones can slide a little behind? Are there some streams of information that are just using up your time without any payback to either your personal life, or your career?
Note the information flows that you wish to keep up with, and consciously discard the information that is coming in from other flows. For those flows which are important, determine the most appropriate method of remaining up-to-date. This might mean dedicating time at work to keep up with occupational information, or new magazine subscriptions at home.
For those flows which are to be discarded you must make conscious decisions on a regular basis to stop using time devoted to these flows. Certain papers or magazines won't get read, for example.
With your own information flows in order, you can proceed to the next step.
Building the core network
By cutting out specific information flows you have consciously deprived yourself of up-to-date information in certain areas. This does not mean you no longer need the information, but that you are not tracking it yourself. Since you still need the information, whether work or home related, you must find an alternative source.
Finding alternative sources of information is not that difficult, and can be readily accomplished by looking around the office or neighbourhood. There's Joe down the hall, he is a whizz with Word Perfect, and Betty across can do things with Excel that would make your head spin. Russ down the street has got the best looking deck of the neighbourhood, and Francis grows the best Petunias you have every seen.
Talk to these people and find their interests and consequently their personal network of information. Log this information as: "Here is the person I need to talk to about ...". The actual information you get from them can be stored or discarded as you see fit, since you can always return to the source when necessary.
This new core network now contains a list of people that have access to the most up-to-date information in their own particular interest areas. Notice that you have reduced your information load by replacing information on things with a single name.
With the core network in place you can proceed to the next step.
Building the external network
You, plus your core network, should now contain most of the information and sources that you need for everyday life. Unfortunately your needs don't stop there since you must consider at least the two sure things in life: death and taxes. Somewhere in, or beyond, your core network is a whole host of services you need for living in today's complex society: insurance, legal, financial, accounting, medical, dental etc.
These wider range of services are necessary to stay healthy, etc., but you must agree that trying to stay current on any of these professions (unless it is yours) is quite hopeless. Over time you have probably accumulated; a family doctor, a family dentist, a favourite drug store, a financial advisor, etc.
These people form part of the external network to provide information and services that you really don't want to know anything about. You turn to them for help and assistance when the time comes, much like turning to ask any of your core network colleagues.
You may not realize it but you have created a substantial network of people and contacts from which you can draw information on an as-required basis. Again you will be retaining the information about the person, only.
Filling the gap
With this network in place one can significantly reduce the incoming information load and make it manageable. One can operate comfortably in this new milieu until something new comes along; change. Since the premise of this page is that change is constant one must have a mechanism in place to see the change coming and adjust your personal, core and external networks accordingly.
Here is the key to recognizing change without creating information overload. You need to add one more person to your network. This person will fulfil certain duties and use their talents as required.
These duties are related to the uncovering of new information and information sources that MAY be of importance to you, either personal or professional. On a regular basis they will inform you of what is new, or could be happening. This can be weighed in a business or personal context for you to decide the appropriate action.
The talents of such a person are somewhat unusual. They must be able to understand and process vast quantities of information and present it in a useful form. They must be able to find the new sources and extract the information. They must be able to redo everything with the expectations that things have changed and everything could be different.
Source: J. Paul Cripwell