Thursday 20 October 2011

KM and information overload

Information overload There is a real tension that we face in knowledge management, and that is the tension between increased knowledge sharing and "information overload".  Especially when we use e-mail as part of our knowledge management system, users often complained that bringing in e-mail associated with knowledge sharing is adding to the information overload problem, rather than help to sort it out.

On the one hand, we realise that communication and conversation is an essential part of a knowledge management, and that knowledge management is an essential part of business nowadays.  On the other hand, people don't want more communication.

Sometimes people say "let's not add any more to the e-mail burden; let's share knowledge through twitter, yammer, RSS feeds, blogs and wikis instead".  But that is not reducing the information overload, it is merely changing the number of channels through which that overload of information comes.

There are a couple of issues here.

Firstly, there is no such thing as information overload when it is information we are truly interested in. What causes the overload people complain about in email is an overload of irrelevance. It's not a matter of urgency, it's a matter of relevance. Shell have done research on the use of email-enabled community forums which show that a community message is treated as much more relevant than yet another FYI from HR, and a request for assistance from a community colleague is treated as urgent and important and something we should be interested in. So the issue here is not information overload, but relevance underload.   It's a signal to noise issue.

Secondly, there is the way in which this information is presented.  Some knowledge management system seemed to think that you need to forward everything to everybody.  Perhaps you set up a sharepoint folder, and you notify all the members of the community if there is any updates to any file within that folder.  That can be a huge amount of information, and most of it minor details that people really don't need to know.  Why not just send out one alert, from a central coordinator, when there is something of real significance of people need to be alerted about?  You can organize the information, and send it out in a digestible form, rather than sending it out in a raw form. The issue here is not information overload, but organisational underload.

So let's be smart about our knowledge management.  Let's increase communication within communities of practice and across organisational boundaries , but let's be sensible about it.  Let's send out messages that are relevant to people.  Let's not bombard them with raw information but give them organised knowledge, packaged in a way that is useful and relevant and interesting to them.  Let's increase signal to noise, let's increase organisation, let's increase relevance (this can be part of the role of the community of practice facilitator or leader). Let's keep the knowledge in a central maintained place, and use e-mail only for notifications and not for storage.

Even better, let's drive a knowledge management primarily through pull rather than through push.  Let's ensure our community conversations are driven by questions, rather than just sending out information FYI. Let's make sure that there is a market for our communication, before we send it.

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