Are We Overloaded Yet?

Over the last year or so, I've been asked to speak a number of times about the problem of information overload. At the first invitation, my initial thought was, "This topic is so last year!" In fact, there are articles back in the 1960s and 1970s discussing how to use electronic clipping services (then called Selective Dissemination of Information, as we old-timers remember) to battle the "new" problem of information overload. And I love this quote from a 1968 doctoral thesis: "Without efficient and effective search and retrieval mechanisms, the problems of information overload and information starvation will become more serious for the majority of users." La plus ça change…

Even though we've been facing this problem for decades, developments over the last couple of years have made it that much more difficult to keep from being overwhelmed with info-noise. For starters, the disintermediation effect of the Web has lead to far more, well, stuff finding its way online—PowerPoint presentations, position papers, spreadsheets, random musings, you name it. And, truth be told, we info pros are guilty of contributing to info glut too. We're the ones loading up intranet sites and enterprise-wide portals with dozens of links to econtent, maintaining 500-link bookmark files, and offering competitive environment scans that result in far more information than anyone can read. Our greatest asset—our ability to find, filter, and manage information—becomes a liability when we overwhelm our clients with content.

Of course, it's hard to stop a search when we're finding lots of great information, or when we're working on a really interesting project. We know how far out the information horizon extends, and, intrepid explorers that we are, we want to go all the way to the mountains in the hazy distance and see what we can bring back. What we sometimes forget, though, is that our clients or patrons often don't experience that same thrill of the chase and, in any event, don't want to have to read through all the material we brought back. Heck, if all they wanted was lots and lots of content, all they have to do is throw a few words in any Web search engine.

We info pros have always had competition—in the form of other departments within our organization, and the intern down the hall who may not know much about a value-added econtent source, but who can find and download a Utah Phillips performance in two minutes flat. We also compete, whether we like it or not, with search engines. We'll never be as user-friendly as Google, or available 24/7/365 from any location, so our best chance is to offer distilled information that no search engine is able to deliver. That means writing up summaries of what we found, developing PowerPoint presentations of the key points for clients who are accustomed to receiving information in this kind of format, and tracking down the resources that won't ever exist on the Web at all. A brief phone conversation with a frequently-cited expert on the topic you're researching can result in receiving a packet of unpublished or obscure reports and articles in the mail (material you'd never have been able to track down if you relied solely on the online resources).

In fact, I find that my best research is often done by wondering: "what would my client not be able to find on his own, if he just uses a couple of search engines?" So, I focus on finding invisible Web material; on searching the databases of industry and trade press, which are much less likely to have content available on open Web sites; and on digging deep into government or association Web sites to find that elusive database of locations of cell phone towers.

This change in focus—thinking about what we can find beyond search engines—has the unexpected result of helping us distill our research results and focus our time and energy on the most relevant material. In fact, I often employ a strategy taught to me by information consultant Linda Cooper.

When I provided research services for her, she had me write a brief explanation of why I was sending her each article. As I wrote out a sentence or two about each article, I'd often realize that I was including an article out of laziness or because I didn't really understand the point of the research. I'd often eliminate half of the material, as I worked to provide just the material that truly answered the client's question. This exercise, even if you don't spell out your rationale, can help you focus on sending only the most relevant information. Our goal is to return to the days before search engines and information overload, when our clients were amazed at our ability to dig up high-value information, and to again have them marvel at what we deliver and know they are standing in the presence of an Info God.