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Guest Column: Bow-Ties and Information Overload

By on September 15, 2011No Comment

Bow-ties: classy and helpful for understanding Information Overload

Information Overload is something that most knowledge workers understand intuitively.  We all know what it feels like to stare at an overflowing inbox not unlike a deer in headlights, or to sit at your desk wracking your brain trying to remember the location of an important bit of information.

Unfortunately, although it is easy to recall the feeling of Information Overload, visualizing and conceptualizing it is much more difficult.  We get hung up in definitions, specific technologies, and different approaches to dealing with the problem, and as a result, often fail to see what the problem looks like on a simplified, macro level.  We understand what Information Overload is, but fail to see the forest for the trees.

To help visualize the complex information flows that every knowledge worker and every organization must navigate, I often use the metaphor of a bow-tie.  This helps me to understand and conceptualize Information Overload, and it may be helpful to you as well.  To start, simply picture the shape of a bow-tie (yes, the fancy one that goes around the neck).

On the left side of the bow-tie is the complex incoming information in the form of communications, news and reports, meetings, and any other information input, no matter how small.  This flow includes sources both internal and external to the organization that are filtered down and processed in the middle of the bow-tie, the knot.  The knot is where the complex flow of information is reduced, simplified, and digested so that it can be used to produce complex outcomes on the other side of the knot.  The right side of the bow-tie is where the structured and digested information is applied to business problems and used to create profit and gain advantage.

The bow-tie is a powerful model because it allows for complex inputs to be reduced to manageable blocks that are then used to drive complex outcomes.  The problem is that the knot of the bow-tie, and by extension the organization, team, or individual knowledge worker, is vulnerable to becoming overloaded.  If the knot fails and is overwhelmed by the incoming information on the left side, then the important outcomes being produced on the right side will suffer.

For example, imagine a knowledge worker (sitting in the middle, at the knot) who is dealing with too much information in the form of extremely high numbers of search results (the incoming information on the left-hand side of the bow-tie).  The combination of his inadequate search tools and techniques leads him to becoming overwhelmed.  As a result, he is not able to find the information he is looking for, and he moves forward with his project using sub-standard information.  The project (the output on the right-hand side of the bow-tie) ends up having to be redone and reviewed many more times than necessary because of the errors.  If the problem at the knot could have been avoided, the significant time and effort that was spent fixing the errors would have been saved.

On a group level, a sales team that is receiving an overwhelming amount of e-mail will be unable to effectively process the incoming information, leading to the team missing promising sales leads.  The team’s failure to maximize the information they are receiving leads to the outputs that are produced being not up-to-par, in this case resulting in lower sales.  The problem in this case is the team’s ability to process the high volume of e-mail effectively; resolving that pain point would improve the output and drive to higher sales.

Now, I don’t expect anyone to start wearing bow-ties because of this Information Overload visualization technique (although they are very stylish and perhaps underused).  Nonetheless, applying this metaphor to areas where Information Overload is harming productivity and impacting an organization’s bottom line may help to understand the problem and focus efforts to address it.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.  He can be reached at cburke@basex.com

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