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 How will we survive Information Overload?

By Dr. Pita Enriquez Harris

Northern Light has a new advertisement, which makes ample use of white
space, stating simply, in the centre of an almost empty page: "You're
a corporate librarian.  Obviously, you're in it for the glory."

It is meant ironically. (I'm guessing.)

Would you believe it if I told you I think it's true?

Think about it.  On the one hand we've got management gurus like Peter
Drucker telling us that because of the massive shift from manual work
to knowledge work, information challenges and the productivity of the
knowledge worker will be the key indicators of future economic
success.  On the other hand, we have those surveys from Reuters that
warn of the dire consequences of an executive workforce suffering from
information overload, not to mention regular articles in the
broadsheets making the same point (only, more stridently).

How we deal with issues of information overload and information
literacy therefore, has become one of the chief challenges of economic
growth.  And information professionals, including corporate
librarians, have an opportunity to lead the way.

We tend to think of machines as being good at processing information.
This is true for processes that can be expressed as a mathematical
algorithm and which are repetitive.  What machines aren't yet very
good at is mimicking the human power of making the types of complex
decisions like "Is this relevant" and "Why?" and "Who should know
this, and why?" and "Who would know more about this?" and "What
information is missing here?"  Human brains are relatively amazing at
processing information in this way.  It'll be a very long time before
a computer can write "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire."  But
we can't parallel-process or multi-task the way computers can.  And
we get tired after a few hours and need to nap and watch "Star Trek"
to get our minds off the information.

Learning and processing information are, like any human function,
grounded in physiological processes.  If we knew exactly what these
were, we might be able to manipulate them with drugs.  There is
already some indication that the nicotine in cigarettes can aid
learning - you learn faster when you're taking a drag!  But there
would probably be a cost to manipulating the brain in this way - you
might get tired faster, for example.

If we want to get better quickly at handling information overload in
the near future, we have only two realistic options.  One is to get
better at producing information.  The second is to use software
intelligently, without expecting that it alone will solve all the

You could argue that contrary to popular opinion, we are not, in fact,
demonstrating the limits of our ability to process information.  That
'information overload' is caused primarily by an abundance of
unusable, irrelevant information.  We can plan to tackle this problem
by investing millions to develop software that can filter out the
trash.  We could also tackle the problem at the other end, improving
the quality of the information we produce so that there isn't so much
trash, and teaching people from an early age how to do information
research efficiently.

Noreen Mac Morrow of Strathclyde Business School, agrees that
information overload is as much a cultural as technological issue.
"We gather more and more information but allow ourselves less and less
time to actually absorb it. Part of the problem is finding that
reflective time to be able to put the pieces together in a way that is

Dr. Michael Stein, a Commissioning Editor with Blackwell Science tells
me;  "The problem with information overload is that people are unable
to make a coherent story out of it.  They try to bring in all this
disparate information but what really makes a good story, or a good
textbook, is a distillation of wisdom.  All our best teachers have the
story-telling skill."

If the transfer of the written word from the page to the screen is
relatively non-revolutionary, the invention of hypertext is.  It
introduces a whole new perspective to the story-telling paradigm of
human communication - the story that is bifurcating, labyrinthine, and
always unique.

Dr. Stein reflects on the implications of this. "The problem with the
Internet is all the amazing amounts of information.  Certain people
have the ability to navigate through that and create their own story.
But most people aren't actually that creative.  They want to be told,
they want to hear stories."

Now, even Big Business seems to be embracing this idea.  In his paper
to the 1999 Knowledge Management Conference and Exhibition (held in
London, March 1999), David Snowden of IBM Global Services spoke about
a new KM practice of collecting and storing the kind of anecdotes
about the business and using this database of stories to the advantage
of the company.  If adopted generally as a 'KM Technique', this will
represent a realistic, duplicable approach to the problem of how to
capitalize on the tacit knowledge within an organization. As Thomas
Stewart writes in an article for Fortune,   "Nothing serves a leader
better than a knack for narrative. Stories anoint role models, impart
values, and show how to execute indescribably complex tasks."

Free Pint is using this technique also.  William Hann has facilitated
the creation of a virtual community, with storytellers at the heart
of the movement.  The Free Pint writers weave stories around a
handful of carefully chosen Web addresses, picked for their ability
to add value to the experience of going onto the Web.  Without the
story, we'd be left with fragmentary information, and little evidence
of the human mind behind the plan.

Finally, here's some ammunition to use to persuade your managers to
take information overload seriously and plan for training and software

Surveys on information overload:
The Implementation of Intranet Technology as a Solution to Information
Overload in the Top 100 Commercial Organisations in the United Kingdom
by Steve Parker of Queen Mary University College, Edinburgh.

"Dying for information" and "Out of the Abyss" - the
Reuters-commissioned survey which sparked the furore and the follow-up
which shows that although there are improvements, we still have a way
to go.  Also useful is the Reuters Guide to Good Information Strategy
at http://www.reuters.com/rbb/research/gisframe.htm

Why search engines aren't good enough:
"Search Stinks!  But you don't have to take it"
Jesse Berst's comments on the latest research findings (published in
Nature) of search engines and how well (or not) they cover the Web.

Learn about upcoming software tools that use visualization to help
make sense of huge volumes of information: The Information Refinery
(http://tir.tasc.com/) I2 (http://www.i2.co.uk) Harlequin

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Dr. Pita Enriquez Harris is one of the founders of The Oxford
Knowledge Company, which is dedicated to helping companies tackle
information overload.  They offer training, software and custom 
research and current awareness services to assist people to make the 
best use of external information.  A more comprehensive version of 
this article will be published in ASLIB's Millenium book; "i in the
sky: Visions of the Information Future" edited by Alison Scammell. 
Publication date is December, orders via Portland Press, 
Tel  01206 796 351, email sales@portlandpress.co.uk.
Other articles by Dr. Harris can be found on the company Web site at:
http://www.oxford-knowledge.co.uk/ You can also download a trial copy
of award-winning Web search software BullsEye from
Email: pita@oxford-knowledge.com
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This interview is reprinted from http://www.freepint.co.uk/
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