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Leadership in An Age of Information Overload

By on July 28, 2011One Comment

"Gentlemen, please don't overload me today!"

What will distinguish successful companies in the years to come will not be their products nor their services.  Rather, it will be the ability of their leaders to ingest and make sense of massive amounts of information that is received on all levels – as well as to create strategies that allow their companies to do the same.  Leaders, be they CEOs of corporations or presidents of countries, are today bombarded by more information than ever.  They are not immune to the problem of Information Overload; in fact, they may actually be more vulnerable to its insidious effects.

President Obama and other world leaders spend their days digesting voluminous amounts of information – and this is after aides predigest material into briefing books.  Speaking at a college commencement in 2010, Obama commented that information has become “a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than the means of emancipation”. The typical CEO’s day is similar although the typical CEO doesn’t normally have as many people culling, pruning, and analyzing the information headed his way.

Most leaders – even those who do feel overloaded by information – don’t fully understand the great cost of Information Overload to their organizations.  One 80,000-person firm in the tech sector estimated the cost of Information Overload at roughly $1 billion.  For a smaller organization with a workforce of 1,000, the cost could easily be as high as $15 million.

The vast amount of information available to leaders has dramatically increased the need to delegate more efficiently.  The leader’s day – as well as that of his subordinates – is frequently chaotic.  An analysis of a typical day shows that a mere 5% is available for thought and reflection.  For leaders in particular, as they – more so than other knowledge workers -should be thinking for a living, only having 5% of the day for focused thought can be devastating.  What takes up the largest part for the day?  This time is lost due to Information Overload-related problems that, while taking tiny amounts of time individually, end up collectively costing 25% of the workday.

As a result, according to my research, 66% of knowledge workers feel that they do not have sufficient time to get all of their work done and over 50% feel that the amount of information they are presented with on a daily basis is detrimental to getting their work done.  94% of knowledge workers have felt overwhelmed to the point of incapacitation by the amount of information they encounter every day, so any reduction in the deluge of information they must process is a positive step.

Leaders need to reduce their information exposure and – at the same time – help their organizations create an information strategy that will anticipate the increased amount of incoming information, manage it, and actually reduce the amount of Information Overload that each worker in the organization is exposed to.

Effective management of Information Overload-related issues increases productivity, reduces stress levels, and leads to a more healthy work/life balance.  Employees who work in an environment where management has begun to address the problem of Information Overload and its impact will have greater chances to learn and develop.  Learning effectively necessitates focused, thoughtful discussion and reading, which is impossible in a distracted environment.

Leaders need to recognize the tremendous information burdens of their staff and lead the charge in ensuring that the problem of Information Overload is addressed to the greatest extent possible.  This will give everyone a chance to breathe.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

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