Reuters, United Kingdom
Since 1994, Reuters has conducted three studies into issues of information in the business world. The first To know or not to know: the politics of information, revealed that despite the proliferation of office technology, we were still a race of information misers. The second: Information as an asset: the invisible goldmine, showed how companies failed to realise the value of their information. In October 1996, Reuters conducted the first ever study into Information Overload, called Dying for information, which revealed the significant extent to which overload is becoming a problem in the information age. This paper examines the findings and implications of this research.
DYING FOR INFORMATION: BACKGROUND
The Dying for information study launched by Reuters in October 1996 was undertaken principally for the business world. Reuters produces 27,000 pages of information per second.
Many users who depend upon information do not consider themselves to be information specialists, for example sales managers and marketing people. The most complex use of information which they may make is accessing a database via a graphical Web interface. Talking to these users about information problems is not unlike trying to sell a spreadsheet to someone who does not want to add up. They cannot perceive the need for an information service on their desk or why it should be managed. They see information as problem, but see it as something which should be dealt with by others. However, once overload is accepted as a problem, people are motivated to find a solution.
In 1994, Reuters conducted a study called To know or not to know: the politics of information. This took place at about the time Lotus Notes and Windows were taking off. Information was still controlled easily within businesses for political and other purposes. It revealed a nation of information misers. The following year, in producing the follow-up study Information as an asset: the invisible goldmine, Reuters had an axe to grind. They needed to demonstrate the value of information and wanted to assess how to calculate the return on investment: the evidence thus far had been anecdotal only. The research showed that companies put an enormous value upon information, without thinking on the whole about capitalising it putting it on the balance sheet, valuing it, or insuring it. Both of these issues remain relevant, although as business becomes more information-based, its value is taking on greater prominence.
THE STUDY PROCESS
Field work on Dying for information was carried out in July 1996 and the study was launched in the following Autumn. 1,300 managers were interviewed in UK, USA, Hong Long and Singapore. In the UK, 500 senior and junior managers participated. Focus Group activity also formed an essential part of the study process. Respondents were in general "in denial" about information overload. Focus Groups allowed this to be "tweaked" by shifting the question to whether participants felt that colleagues rather than themselves were suffering from information overload. A lot of data collected during the study has not yet been analysed.
Why is there information overload?
The amount of information has increased for a number of reasons: there is a general increase in business communication, in-company and with customers and suppliers; trends such as globalisation and deregulation increase competition; companies are downsizing and fewer secretaries are employed to protect people from information; more outsourcing means a wider range of other companies with which it is necessary to communicate. There are also more ways to communicate: by fax, voice mail, e-mail, internet and online conferencing, in addition to the more traditional methods, telephone, meetings, post and telex.
Two-thirds of managers responding were found to need "very high levels" of information, reflecting a feeling that large amounts of information are essential to back up decisions. The survey also showed that nearly half feel they need to collect information to keep up with colleagues. Two-thirds also believe information is under-utilised, while half often or frequently cannot cope with the volume of information they receive.
The cost to business
Time is wasted. People spend too much time looking for information. 38% of managers surveyed waste "substantial" amounts of time just looking for information.
Factors such as the holding of files in different software formats and the speed of the internet at critical times of day contribute to this. Decisions are often delayed: 43% of respondents though that decisions were delayed and otherwise adversely affected by "analysis paralysis" or the existence of too much information. 47% of respondents said that information collection distracts them from their main responsibilities. They find it difficult to develop strategies for dealing with the information they retrieve. It is interesting to imagine the potential increase in productivity if all distractions were removed.
The human costs
The study identified for the first time that information overload contributes to stress. Two out of three respondents associated information overload with tension with colleagues and loss of job satisfaction. 42% attributed ill-health to this stress. 61% said that they have to cancel social activities as a result of information overload and 60% that they are frequently too tired for leisure activities.
In general these were not considered to be of great significance. Managers in the USA and the United Kingdom get the most unsolicited information. Asian managers appear to need less information to make decisions: only 9% claimed to need "enormous amounts" of information compared with 31% in the United States. Their major decisions may be made through intuition to a greater extent. More United States managers (39%) agree that they suffer stress than those in the UK and Hong Kong.
MAIN LESSONS FROM THE STUDY
People can no longer develop effective personal strategies for managing information. Faced with an onslaught of information and information channels, they have become unable to develop simple routines for managing information.
Technologies for managing information are often the problem, not the solution. They can create the "M25 effect": more lanes just means more traffic. People create and distribute because they can, not because its useful. Intranets can become like the internet full of home-made home pages and dead links. "Intelligent agents" frequently do not live up to their name.
Perhaps the main conclusion is that companies need to take information management seriously. However, the job is not in great demand there is no guarantee that support will be available. Information management should be a board-level discipline as important as finance. The problem will not go away and those that solve it will be the success stories of tomorrow. Similarly, information vendors have to deliver services which offer more useful, relevant and reliable information.
 This account was drafted for this report by The Marc Fresko Consultancy. It is based on notes taken during the presentation, slides and notes used by the speaker.