In an organization data is everywhere. It is to the point where we are practically drowning in data. Most organizations have become skilled at capturing information regarding their customers and prospects. Just take a moment to consider exactly how much customer data is collected. Marketing collects data from those who attend live or web events or download content. The sales department collects data about clients involved in the sales process. Customer support captures information regarding all verbal and written interactions. This data is then compiled and used for accounting and billing purposes, while also offering insight to enable teams to monitor customer satisfaction.
More and more organizations are attempting to simplify data collection into a single repository. This endeavor is meant to address data quality, along with the sheer volume. This effort is expensive, time-consuming, and never-ending as we continue to increasingly make more data at an incomprehensible rate. Experts have theorized that we create more data in two years (a timeframe continually decreasing) than that which has ever existed here on Earth for all of civilization.
The issue arises when we allow this flow of data to consume our minds without managing its quantity, along with its quality. The result becomes the opposite of what we hope to achieve and we end up with information overload. This is the term used to describe the situation where people become engulfed by more information than they are able to usefully use. Information that has become overwhelming or unuseful is referred to as noise.
Angelika Dimoka, the director at the Center for Neural Decision Making at Temple University, conducted a study that measured people’s brain activity while they addressed increasingly complex problems (i.e., noise). Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) she measured brain activity by detecting changes associated with blood flow. She found that as people received more information, their brain activity increased in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. This is a region behind the forehead that is responsible for making decisions and controlling emotions. However, when information became overloaded, it was as though a breaker in the brain was triggered and the prefrontal cortex suddenly shut down.
Dimoka explained, “[As people reach information overload] they start making stupid mistakes and bad choices because the brain region responsible for smart decision making has essentially left the premises.”
“People’s reaction to noise is usually to turn it off. This was dramatically described by Brigadier General Robin Olds, triple ace fighter pilot and Vietnam war hero, when he was flying missions in the cockpit of an F4-Phantom.”
Brigadier General Robin Olds described the scenario as follows,“When crossing into North Vietnam, we started turning off things, like the detection gear for the SAMs (surface-to-air missiles) because it made noises, it bothers you, and it didn’t give you the right information in the first place because if you relied on it the SAM was going to hit you. You avoided the SAMs in an entirely different way, you had to see them. So we started to turn off one by one other systems like the guard channel because there’s always somebody screaming on the emergency channel, we turned off the growler on the sidewinder missile. I would also turn off inbound com from my WSO (Weapon Systems Officer). He could hear me but I could not hear him, which is what I wanted. And I would turn off all the noise I could, so I could concentrate then on the battle at hand.”
Unnecessary noise was an issue the ubiquitous GPS was able to address. Using both visual and audio commands to communicate, the screen only displays the specific information required at any given moment. Meaning, you will not receive information overload while navigating with a modern GPS device.
However, we must also acknowledge that too much sensory stimulation is not the only time we can experience information overload. Dimoka also identified two particular sources of noise that we are not very aware of:
The first being, having an abundance of options. The more choices we are given, the more tired and less effective we become. The human brain has limited resources and energy to expend when making decisions. In the time between getting up in the morning and going to bed in the evening, an average person must make thousands of decisions. Each choice we make drains a little more from our mental reservoir.
The second is multitasking. With constant demands affecting us daily, it’s tempting to try to do as much as possible in any given moment. The truth here is that humans are not optimized for task switching. When we switch between tasks, our brains halt any processing of the current rule set and load a new rule set for the next task. This happens quickly, but halting, unloading, loading and then restarting takes a toll.
The importance of limiting noise is evident. Much like organizations learning to manage the excessive amounts of data they collect, to be successful it is imperative to filter and control the information and options you are processing and receiving all while maintaining focus.
Eric Kish as an author, speaker and practicing CEO. He is the author of 5 to 50 to 500: How to build and run scalable organizations and Everyday Turnaround: The art and science of daily business transformation