Overload! A book review by Bob Morris

Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous to Your Organization
Jonathan B. Spira
John Wiley & Sons (2011)

How and why more information usually means less information has impact

Chip and Dan Heath are the co-authors of two brilliant books, Made to Stick and Switch. In the first, they explain (as its subtitle suggests) “why some ideas survive and others die.” In his book, Overload!, Jonathan B. Spira addresses a much larger issue: Why too much information is “hazardous” to an organization’s health and also to the health of many among its workforce. As he explains, “Information Overload is killing us. It is death by a thousand paper cuts in the form of e-mail messages, documents, and interruptions…While there is relatively little we can do about Information Overload, we don’t have to grin and bear it. What does help reduce Information Overload and lessen its impact is 1.) raising awareness and 2.) presenting context and history as to why the problem is occurring.”

He goes on to observe, “Raising awareness helps because most people are simply unaware of the root causes of Information Overload, such as poor search techniques, unnecessarily copying dozens if not hundreds of colleagues on an e-mail, or calling someone two minutes after sending an e-mail simply to tell the recipient of its presence. Providing context and history puts things into perspective.” Spira organizes his material within two Parts: “How We got Here” and then “”Where We Are and What We Can Do.”

My own rather extensive experience supports Spira’s assertion that Information Overload is both the result of several serious problems that are its root causes, and, is itself the root cause of countless other serious problems. For example, in an organization in which senior management has determined that collaboration must be increased and improved, people will be under severe pressure be become much more involved in communication and cooperation between and among associates. This will create an Information Overload that, in turn, consumes time and energy that should have been allocated elsewhere.

I presume to offer four suggestions to those who read this brief commentary. First, decide whether or not you and/or your organization now suffers from Information Overload. If so, pin down precisely what the most serious problem is (e.g. too many non-essential emails to send and/or read, too many non-essential reports to complete or read). Next, carefully check Spira’s coverage of that specific problem in the book. Finally, read Part I and then only the material relevant to the most serious in Part II. All or even most of the problems cannot be solved simultaneously.

I have no quarrel with any of his advice but do think he calls prey to the perils of Information Overload his book was intended to reduce. The more information, insights, and recommendations he provides throughout the 21 (count `em, 21) chapters within 237 pages, the less impact his most important ideas have. I think a much different format that includes reader-friendly devices such as checklists, self-diagnostic exercises, and end-of-chapter summaries of key points would have better served his purposes. One man’s opinions.

That said, I commend Jonathan Spira on the quality of content and the scope and depth of his analysis of serious problems that cause or result from Information Overload. I now urge him to consider an Overload! Fieldbook (with a workbook format), one that correlates with this book’s sequence of subjects but also enables people to interact with the material by completing exercises that accomplish two important objectives: They help the respondent to define the nature and extent of a given problem — in its context — within her or his own situation and/or organization; also, they emphasize the most important points, thus facilitating, indeed expediting frequent review of both those points and responses later.

As I said, one man’s opinions.

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