Drowning in personal information overflow

Submitted by Isto Huvila on Thu, 03/24/2011 - 09:32

Swedish media, including the daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter, reported today about a study on information searching in daily work. The study was conducted by YouGov for Canon Sweden.


According to the findings, almost half of the interviewed (1075 people) estimated that they use at least 10 hours a month for searching information. One fourth said that they use one hour a day, that is 20 hours a month. According to an average costs for an hour of work, this may cost up to 80 000 kronas or almost 9000 euros a month for an organisation for only one employee.


I would be inclined to agree with Christoffer Blohm from Canon Sweden who commented the results in DN by stating that according to his own experience, the figures are higher in reality. A large proportion of all work revolves around information both directly and indirectly, and much of information work and information searching is a highly implicit part of working. People search information all the time without noticing it. Only the rather rare instances when a person purposefully sets out to search information or when an assumably rather easy search task fails miserably become explicit. Think about your own work. How often do you think by yourself that now I don't know enough to do this particular thing and therefore I am going to search information. Quite rarely, I would say, but probably still often enough so that it takes the reported 10-20 hours a month. All other very colloquial searching and retrieval of information takes additional time. Depending on how the information is organised, the small tasks of re-finding same information anew can probably take up to tens of hours of time in a month.


It is not surprised that a large document management systems supplier sees the problem in the use of legacy technology and poor exploitation of existing digitised information resources. The problem is undoubtedly related to tools, but only partially. The results from the same study that show that 38 percent of all informants were constantly checking their email indicate that the real obstacle is not necessarily an individual system, but the way how it is used. Similarly, the reported result that 40 percent of informants preferred reading printed documents and 22 percent communicated daily using printouts may indicate that the existing digital systems are bad, but on the basis of my own experiences and findings, the problem is more likely to be only related to a system.


The problem is that people are not necessarily very good at taking advantage of the technologies they have and especially, that the work is steered by other priorities than a highly contextual idea of effective and convenient information use. From the point of view of an organisation, factors such as traditions, ghettoisation and departmental boundaries, lack of trust, policies, questions identity and career progression are only some of the reasons that may guide employees to prioritise seemingly obscure forms of the management of information. At the same time they can make perfect sense for individual employees. So, in practice, the first step to do something with the problem should not be to commission a new system, but to find out what people are actually doing at the specific organisation and why, and only then trying to figure out and negotiate how to help and guide that work with the help of diverse, both technical and non-technical tools and approaches.