Bob Lieberman's Blog

Tools For Initiating and Managing Change

Information Overload: Alarm or Transformation? (part 2)

Last time, I was wondering about the feeling of "information overload" we are all experiencing, and entertaining the possibility that the feeling is telling us it's time for major adaptation. That line of thinking led to two key questions for leaders: Where are we going? What will we need when we get there?

In an open system like an organization, you can't predict future behavior without understanding the past. So here's my thumbnail summary of the some recent developments in the world of information (I welcome your corrections).

Hypertext, the ability to jump non-sequentially between documents, is the disruptive technology that got this ball rolling. It arose from research at Harvard in the mid 1960's. But it wasn't until the advent of the world wide web in the 1990's that hypertext documents, in the form of web pages, became commonly available.

The resulting information explosion begot web crawlers, which are software robots developed in order to automate searching. To crawlers, Google added the sophistication of page ranking, a refinement that places value on the affinity and authority relationships between documents. Then Flickr popularized the now familiar tag cloud, a visual arrangement of keywords whose sizes and spatial arrangement make visible some basic hidden relationships of meaning and importance. 

These images feed the highly efficient, non-linear, image-processing center of our brain, whose parallelism could easily take us far beyond the sequential, logical approach to information we have used up to now.

To summarize: in the past, we made the connections, by looking things up manually and by thinking about them. In the near future, we may not have to do that anymore. 

In the near future, it's possible that connections will be made for us, using technologies that will emerge from those in common usage today. Results we are looking for may be delivered to us fully summarized, reasoned, and supported, based on aggregated knowledge and behavior. The summaries could have so much value that we might get used to ignoring their supporting details.

How different business would be in that world! Of course, you can debate whether it will actually come to pass. But there's no denying that in ten years information usage will be different in some astounding future which seems foreign to us now. Do you know what workers will need to capitalize on those developments? 

And that's my point: If you're a C-level executive, you should be seriously exploring that big question right now. If you're just wondering how your organization will cope, you're managing not leading,

P.S. If you think my predicted future is far-fetched, see Robot Scientists Can Think For Themselves.

Information Overload: Alarm or Transformation?

We hear so much about information overload these days. Is it possible that stating our predicament that way is already cutting us off from an entire world of potential solutions?

Margaret Wheatley might think so. I've been enjoying her 1992 book, Leadership and the New Science. According to her reading of chaos theory, alarms like "information overload" often signal the birth of a fundamentally new response to a changing environment.

That would be good! But the idea can be hard to swallow. "Information overload" sounds like a temporary situation, doesn't it? Like a flood or a big rainstorm. The term practically begs us to believe that a bigger pail will get the situation under control – if we can only find one. The pail might be a collector, an organizer, a filter, a categorizer. It may take the form of software, policy, practice, or organizational structure.

The trouble is, it's still a pail, and a bigger pail is not going to be an effective response for very long. If you're not convinced, just ask yourself these questions:
  • Is the amount of information in the world growing?
  • Is its rate of growth accelerating?
  • Is that trend a spike or permanent?

I'm convinced that we're on a path of permanently accelerating information growth, and there will never be a pail big enough to manage it. Instead of asking more management questions, like "what are we doing" and "how are we doing it", we need to be asking more leadership questions, like "where are we going" and "what will we need when we get there".

But it's hard to think like that when you're frantically looking for a pail. So a key challenge for the leader, in this case and in others, is cultivating the habit of letting go of the task at hand.

Why not start practicing right now? Is there something eating at you? What trouble, unsolved problem, or source of stress seems to demand your attention? Got one? OK, now let go of it – it's not really important, it will take care of itself, someone else will take care of it, you can get used it.

Do you feel free? Is your mind clearer? That's good. Do you feel like you're neglecting your responsibility? That's bad. If you do, you're falling into a mental trap of your own making. Only bums neglect responsibility, and you're not a bum. Leaders, like you, accept the big responsibilities – and this is how you do it.