March 14, 2024

Communication: Channels and Information Overload

Loaded donkeys on road
“Information overload is like a silent assassin which creeps up on us. Once we become overloaded, we use only a very small amount of the available data in our decisions, and it is often not the best bits."

Information overload is one of the great modern challenges, it is like a silent assassin which creeps up on us. We like the idea of having more information, but our brains can’t handle the amount we are subjected to. This means we have to filter all the information we receive and choose what to use in every decision we make, which makes each decision task even more complex. And the situation is getting worse; in 2018 it was estimated that 90% of the world’s data had been created in the preceding two years (Marr, 2018). We are now constantly in a state of mild information overload.

This is bad because the amount of information we use to make decisions follows an inverted-U shape (Chewning & Harrell, 1990). Initially, as we get more information, we try to use more inputs in our decisions. But, beyond a certain point, we can’t process all the information, so we start to simplify and reduce the number of factors we use in our decisions. Once we become truly overloaded, we only use only a very small percentage of the available information in our decisions, this may just be the first thing which comes along, it could be something we recognise easily or it might be the item we most readily identify with. This is one of the primary reasons decision-making in organisations is so susceptible to cognitive biases such as confirmation bias, outcome bias, groupthink and the various messenger effects.

The Importance of Messengers and Channels

“The person delivering a message to us and the channel through which this happens have a huge effect on how we perceive and use the information”.

The role of the messenger in how information is received and processed is vital. When we perceive someone as being knowledgeable, trustworthy, influential or authoritative, we ascribe more credibility to their views and opinions than we do to others. Unfortunately, these perceptions of someone’s expertise and credibility can be shaped by irrelevant factors such as the clothes they wear, the way they speak, what they look like or even how tall they are. The messenger effect is powerful. Even when we are aware of these biases, they can be hard to overcome.

There is another important, but less well-recognised, factor which shapes how effectively communication happens; the channels through which we communicate. Soft, or informal channels such as email and instant messaging platforms are seen as the future of organisational communication and the antidote to traditional, cumbersome and starchy processes such as formal meetings and messaging protocols. However, research has shown these can actually decrease the efficiency of communication (Tenhiala & Salvador, 2018). A study of over 160 production processes across more than 70 sites showed that informal communication channels led to inaccurate or incomplete transfer of information, the wrong people being included or excluded from conversations, lack of response from key stakeholders and distractions from competing priorities. They found an absence of accountability, leading to what is known as the “bystander effect” where nobody acts, because they assume it is someone else’s responsibility. The study also found cases where people seeking advice or guidance saw their requests bounce around the organisation unanswered, eventually they gave up and moved forward on their own, despite lacking the appropriate information.

The study found that informal communication channels led to slower communication, delays in production, contract penalties and expensive rework as well as lower customer satisfaction. Formal communication channels, on the other hand, allow organisations to involve the correct stakeholders, to craft messages which are complete and consistent, and to assign accountability for action points.

Of course, there are times when informal channels are useful; when speed is more important than accuracy, or when the complexity of a topic requires a lengthy exchange of ideas in the form of a protracted discussion, although in the latter case, this should always stop short of the actual decision. And, of course, informality is better when discussing a potentially sensitive or emotive topic, although in this instance, the communication should be face-to-face and not via a digital platform. Formal channels perform better when accuracy and/or action are required. They are the best way to communicate when stakes are high and standardised processes need to be followed. They work best when accountability needs to be assigned and they are vital when the information being transmitted may need to be retrieved at a later date.

Combatting Information Overload with Technology and Behavioural Science

“Many popular communication platforms are exacerbating the problem of information overload rather than solving it. The future of information and communication tech is in the custodianship of information not just distribution”.

The use of technology to aid communication has boomed in recent years, supposedly in response to the huge increase in information available. However, many of the popular platforms may be contributing to the problem rather than solving it. Instant messaging and digital meeting apps create more data rather than helping to organise and consume it.

Technology can play a vital part in combatting information overload in two ways; the first is effective aggregation, filtering and organisation of information and the second is by creating effective formal communication processes in a way which seems less old-fashioned and burdensome than traditional methods.

To achieve this, companies should focus on technology which helps establish effective custodianship of information; improving filtering and delivery protocols so decision makers are receiving the information they need in a timely, easy to consume format. They should invest in technologies which ensure important information isn’t drowned out by unnecessary or irrelevant data, that it can be accessed as required, exchanged effectively and aligned with decision processes and outcomes.

Organisations must also focus on the cognitive processes behind communication and information processing to help employees understand the perils of information overload and the cognitive biases which can result. The first important step in mitigating behavioural biases is to recognise and understand them. The second is to put in place simple communication and choice architectures which help decision-making stay on track. The third crucial step is to audit the outcomes of decisions against their original goals, identify where decision-making has strayed off-course, ascertain the cause of the error and adjust the process accordingly.

Before any of this can be done, it is vital to understand the flow of information in an organisation. Organisational network analytics (ONA) can show exactly what is happening. ONA can give invaluable insights into the speed and effectiveness of communication, the key channels and the individuals who facilitate or hamper the flow of information and knowledge. It can also highlight the parts of the organisation which are cut off.

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