Managing knowledge in an information
super rich world: Does self-discipline have
a role to play?
Dr. Nabil Sultan
Liverpool Hope Business School
Liverpool Hope University
Our world is swamped with information. Some of it is solicited and some is not. A great deal
of that information is useful or potentially useful, both for individuals and organizations. By
the same token, a great deal of the information that hits our computer or TV screens that vie
for our attention is useless at best. There is every indication to suggest that this trend is
unlikely to abate. Most likely, the trend will continue to gather pace as more people flock to
the information “super highway”. What is interesting about this phenomenon is that much of
the useless information (some of which is of our own creation and some is created by others
for commercial purposes) get in the way of our quest for useful information and knowledge.
Thanks to the “disruptive” nature of the Web, publishing and distributing information have
become very affordable endeavours. The ubiquity of Information and Communication
Technology (ICT), at work (e.g., email, Web, office productivity software) is a major
contributor to information overload. Many office workers, even managers, are now able to
create their own reports (no longer relying on secretarial assistance as was the case in the
past) and send them to colleagues with their messages, often on a daily basis.
In this article, the issue of information overload will be explored and some approaches will be
suggested in order meet the challenges of information overload and, consequently, help the
cause of knowledge management (KM).
Keywords: Knowledge Management (KM), Information Overload, Disruptive Innovation,
Ephemeralization, Cloud Computing
I. GALACTIC INFORMATION
It is probably adequate to describe the Web era in which we live as an information super rich
one. A recent research report (see Short, Bohn and Baru, 2011) released by the University of
California (UC) entitled “How Much Information? 2010 Report on Enterprise Server
Information” estimated the annual global processing of data in 2008 by the world’s enterprise
servers at 9.57 zettabytes. If one is to imagine this information as a stack of books (assuming
each book is 4.8 centimetres thick and contains 2.5 megabytes of information) it would
extend for 5.6 billion miles, enough to stretch from Earth to Neptune 20 times over. The
study estimated that enterprise server workloads are doubling about every two years. This
means that by 2024 the world’s enterprise servers will annually process the digital equivalent
of a stack of books extending more than 4.37 light-years to Alpha Centauri, our closest
neighbouring star system in the Milky Way Galaxy.
II. THE “DISRUPTIVE” NATURE OF THE WEB
There is no doubt that the Web has had a disruptive impact on the way we publish and
disseminate information. The world, according to Christensen et al, has experienced many
disruptive innovations in its recent history. Bell’s telephone, Sony’s transistor radios, Apple’s
personal computers (to name but a few) are examples of those disruptive innovations
(Christensen, 1997; Christensen and Raynor, 2003; Christensen, Anthony and Roth, 2004).
According to this theory, the disruptive nature of those innovations originates from their
ability to destabilize existing markets and create new business opportunities. Such
innovations often occur less frequently and tend initially to have performance problems.
Furthermore, according to this theory, they are likely to be less expensive, simple and more
convenient to use. It becomes evident from this description that the Web has all the
characteristics of a disruptive innovation. It has destabilized some existing brick and mortar
retail businesses, especially those in the music and book selling business, for example. Using
the web, customers can now download music and books in a few minutes from the comfort of
their own homes. Moreover, the Web has created other market opportunities that did not exist
before, such as enabling consumers to sell to companies (a reversal of the traditional model)
through a business model that came to be known as Consumer to Business (C2B) or to sell to
other consumers through a business model that came to be known as Consumer to Consumer
None of the aforementioned business models would have been possible without the Web.
Despite its popularity, the Web still suffers from a few performance problems relating to
issues such as security and bandwidth (another characteristic of a disruptive innovation).
Many people still do not trust the Web for conducting business. In periods of heavy business
activity, bandwidth can be a real (and costly) problem. Using your online stockbroker (as a
private investor) to sell your falling shares on the day of a stock market crash can be a
One of the most significant disruptive features of the Web is the creation and disseminating
of “information”. The affordability of the Web has made writing and publishing of
information inexpensive; a situation which resulted in an explosion of online information,
some useful and some utterly useless. This situation was described by Heylighen (2002) as
the consequence of “ephemeralization” (a term coined by Buckminster Fuller1), defined as
the ever increasing productivity or efficiency of all processes brought about by technological
innovation. According to this view, ephemeralization has made the production and
distribution of information extremely inexpensive, which made it possible for senders to
spread their messages ever more widely.
New innovations in Web technology, what came to be known as Web 2.0, and
communication technologies have further increased the urge to publish and disseminate
information. Social networks and other technological developments (e.g., WiFi, Wikis, blogs,
iPhone, iPad) are a few examples of those new innovations.
1 Richard Buckminster Fuller is an American inventor, architect, author and futurist.
III. FINDING THE KNOWLEDGE IN THE INFORMATION
There is no intention on my part to delve too much into the controversial debate of “what is
information” and “what is knowledge”. There are too many definitions that make it difficult
to come to a clear conclusion (Little and Ray, 2005). From a practical and convenient
viewpoint, the definition that views knowledge as synonymous with information (especially
digital) is adopted here (Gates, 1999; Lehner, 1992 and Terrett, 1998, cited by Little and Ray,
2005). Knowledge is therefore information deemed useful by an individual or organization
for practical and/or intellectual purposes. For such information to be managed successfully, it
has to be stored, retrieved and transmitted in accordance with certain conventions designed to
standardize procedures and minimize non-value adding activities. On that basis, there are two
issues here: (a) finding the useful information and (b) managing that information.
III. I Finding the Useful Information
Given the ease with which information in our Web era can be created and transmitted, the
world has become flooded with information. Much of that information is useless and volatile.
It is estimated that 40 percent of data on the Web changes monthly and 30 percent of Web
pages are almost duplicates (Baeza-Yates and Ribeiro-Neto, 1999, cited by Jashapara, 2011).
Bearing in mind that this estimate was made more than a decade ago, this current situation is
likely to be even worse. The emergence of search engines provided a useful mechanism to
enable us to locate the information we need. In this respect, Google has managed to establish
a formidable reputation in this field, thanks to its “coca-cola”-like recipe of algorithm and a
business model where advertisers subsidize searchers of information. Google has become the
de facto “public” tool for locating information to the extent that the transitive verb “google”
(meaning “search”) has entered into our daily language and the Oxford dictionary in 2006.
Aware of its rising status in this field, Google has recently named one of its internal groups
”the knowledge group”, known previously as the search group (Arrington, 2011).
Search engines have come to rely on software (known as agents, crawlers or robots) that
scour the huge Web landscape in order to locate information (which is subsequently indexed
by specialist software) based on certain criteria defined by the developers and managers of
those search engines. This situation has made it easy for certain people (and organizations in
particular) to design their websites in such ways that enable the links to those websites appear
on the top lists of one’s search results. Most interestingly, a new and more “sophisticated”
trend (known as “content farming”) emerged during the last two years that makes this
situation a way of making a living. Content farming is largely practised by organizations
whose main objective is to attract Web traffic to their websites in the hope that viewers will
be tempted to mouse-click on some of the advertising links on those websites (an activity that
will guarantee the hosts of those advertisements an income). In order to achieve this, content
farmers rely on a dedicated pool of low-paid professional writers who produce low quality
articles (often a hodgepodge of information drawn from many other Web sources including
Wikipedia). The articles often include keywords that receive a high number of searches in
search engines, thus tricking searchers into believing that they have found what they wanted.
In doing so, the content farmers hope that those researchers might be tempted to click on
some hyperlinked images or texts representing advertisements, an activity that will register as
“page view” and earns them a small fee from the advertisers.
Recently, Google became aware of this phenomenon and, in order to address it, made an
update of its algorithm (that became known as the “Panda update”) which physically demoted
a large list of websites that were identified as content farmers. Given the lucrative business
of content farming it remains to be seen if Google’s movehas been successful in affecting this
No one can deny Google’s success in its ability to facilitate the process of finding
information for millions of people. Given that this facility comes to the searchers at no cost
(since the advertisers are the ones who pay the bill) may tempt people to ask if users of this
search tool have any right to complain. This could change however if Google decides to
charge for its search services (assuming it also introduces additional features that improve
searching). This scenario is not far-fetched, given the precarious and competitive nature of
advertising. Many people will probably be prepared to pay for a better information-retrieving
service. However, the convenience, ease and maybe even “fun” of searching for information
will no doubt suffer. Given the massive popularity of Google, this scenario will represent a
major and sudden impact on our ability to access useful information. It is ironic that one
Western company, headed by a small group of bright young people, can, at a stroke of a pen
(or byte) decide if the world can have access to the information it needs.
III. II Managing the Useful Information
Acquiring the useful information is probably the least problematic task when dealing with
information. Managing that information is more challenging. On a more personal level, how
many of us can attest to having a well organized folder structure on our personal home
computers underpinned by navigational and folder and file-naming conventions that facilitate
the storing, retrieval and transformation of information? On a more professional or
organizational level, the same question can be asked. Let us try now and ask the same
question with relation to the work place but in a different way: how many of us can attest to
being able to find the work-related information that we need with ease? I certainly have not
raised my hand in response to any of these questions. Ironically, much of these information-
organising problems can be attributed to the sheer number of times that we have to deal with
information. We have very little time at work or at home to devote towards this task. And
once we have accumulated many gigabytes of that information finding the time to organize it
becomes a problem of its own as there is very little time left to do this activity. Most of our
time is spent on processing information (e.g., reading it, understanding it and using it to
produce our own information) but little time is spent on organising it. Thomas Stewart
(author of the best seller “Intellectual Capital”) wrote in a subsequent book, in 2001, under
the title “The Wealth of Knowledge: Intellectual Capital and the Twenty-First Century
We produce an extraordinary amount of the stuff ...Sure, a lot of it is
garbage...Much of this production is never sold. For example, only a fifth of
the information produced on paper can be found in books, newspapers, and
periodicals; the rest is office documents (Stewart, 2001).
Indeed, the phenomenon of information overload suffered by individuals and organizations
and its implications has been acknowledged by other researchers in this filed as well
(Edmunds and Morris, 2000; Jones et al., 2004, cited by Kock, Aguila-Obra and Padilla-
Melendez, 2009). Communication at work on a daily basis through written information
exchanges such as electronic messages and documents are responsible for much of work’s
high volumes of information, in contrast to other oral and telephone exchanges which have
lower volumes of information transferred through them (Wainfan and Davis, 2004, cited by
Kock, Aguila-Obra and Padilla-Melendez, 2009). Stewart describes his experience with email
in a more telling (albeit amusing) way:
If I return to the office after a few days away, the stack in my inbox is
noticeably shorter than it was when I returned from trips five years ago-and
the amount of weightless email is much greater. (Approximately 610 billion e-
mails are sent per year, of which at least a third are cc’d to me). (Stewart,
The inability of managers and professionals to deal successfully with information overload in
organizational contexts is recognized by some authors (Edmunds and Morris, 2000, cited by
Kock, Aguila-Obra and Padilla-Melendez, 2009). Many of the information processing aids at
work, such as electronic collaboration technologies, can indirectly lead to an overall increase
in the amount of information that an individual has to process (Schultze and Vandenbosch,
1998, cited by Kock, Aguila-Obra and Padilla-Melendez, 2009). This situation is echoed by
Heylighen (2002) who argues that revolutionary technologies developed to increase
productivity initially fail in this purpose, because their introduction adds to complexity and
information overload since individuals have to learn how to use them, thus creating a
IV. THE PRICE OF TOO MUCH INFORMATION
One of the first researchers to recognize the problem of too much information was
psychologist David Lewis who called this phenomenon “information fatigue syndrome” and
associated it with many psychological and negative behaviours such as anxiety, poor
decision-making, difficulties in memorising and remembering, reduced attention span,
reduced work satisfaction and strained relations with collaborators (Waddington, 1996;
Shenk, 1997; Wurman, 1990, cited by Heylighen, 2002).
This issue was highlighted by Heylighen (2002) who contends that people find it ever more
difficult to cope with all the new information they receive, constant changes in the
organizations and technologies they use, and increasingly complex and unpredictable side-
effects of their actions. This situation, according to Heylighen, often leads to growing stress
and anxiety, fuels various gloom and doom scenarios about the future of our planet, and may
help explain the increasingly radical movements against globalization. And the longer people
are subjected to information overload, the more negative its effects on physical and mental
well-being. What we normally would consider as technological progress, according to this
author, brings with it a number of subtle, but unavoidable side-effects that make it
increasingly difficult for individuals and society to control or predict further developments.
This issue is shared by other researchers who based their findings on empirical studies.
Klausegger, Sinkovics and Zou (2007), who conducted research relating to the impact of
information overload in Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia, UK and USA, listed the following
effects on the investigated people: decreasing job satisfaction, health problems, negative
effects on social and personal contacts, and decreasing amounts of leisure time.
Given the unstoppable progress of Information Technology (IT), Heylighen (2002) suggests
that we should develop suprahuman systems to complement our limited capacities for
processing information and understanding complex systems. These systems, according to
him, cannot be merely technological (the famed superintelligent computers or robots), but
must also encompass humans as essential components.
V. THE CULTURAL DIMENSION
An interesting study by Kock, Aguila-Obra and Padilla-Melendez (2009), attributes
“perceived” higher levels of information overload more to cultural factors than to the volume
of written of information or number of transactions processed by an individual. They argue
that information overload is rarely measured directly and objectively (i.e., by the amount of
work load) and that attempts to measure it in that way often failed into the trap of measuring
it through effects that are caused by information overload. Information overload, according to
those authors, can only be measured indirectly and subjectively, through perceptions of
information overload. Their study is based on data collected from 184 local managers and
professionals in New Zealand, Spain and the USA. The study draws on research conducted
by Geert Hofstede on the influence of culture on work relationship and their effects on staff.
In particular, the issue of “power distance”2 is identified as a contributor of stress at work.
The rationale for this hypothesis is that individuals who are more accepting of power
differentials in organizations are also likely to feel more time pressure to perform work well.
The conclusion of this study is that information overload intensity was observed to be more
strongly related to power distance than to the volume of written information or number of
information transactions processed by an individual. This conclusion is referred to by the
authors as the “information overload paradox”. On that basis, according to the authors of this
study, it is reasonable to argue that reducing power distance in an organization may reduce
perceived information overload and possibly lead to better overall performance.
The aforementioned empirical study of Kock, Aguila-Obra and Padilla-Melendez seems to
suggest that workers from countries with low power distance are more likely to perceive
2 Defined as the extent to which less (and more) powerful members of organizations (e.g.,
employees and their superordinates) accept that power is distributed unequally.
information overload as less of a problem than workers from countries with high power
distance. These findings strike me as counter-intuitive. Indeed the authors themselves also
acknowledge this fact. Many of the low power distance countries are ranked amongst the
world’s developed countries where IT is one of their main contributors to growth and
competitive advantage. This should suggest therefore that any employee perceptions of low
information overload should logically come from these countries.
Interestingly, but not surprisingly, the aforementioned study by Klausegger, Sinkovics and
Zou (2007), which is based on five countries (Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia, UK and
USA) concludes that much of the information overload problems and their negative impact
on people (as one would expect) are most dramatic in the UK, Australia and the USA (low
power distance countries).
It would be more interesting to see such empirical studies include some of the high power
distance and high context cultures (especially those in the Arab World for example) where
personal and face-t-face contact is of more importance than the faceless and distant means of
electronic communication. High and low context cultures are terms coined by
anthropologist Edward Hall in his 1976 book “Beyond Culture”. According to Hall, people of
a high context culture have a tendency to use high context messages over low context
messages (used by people of low context cultures) in routine communication. In a high
context culture, for example, many things are left unsaid, letting the culture explains them.
Words and word choice become very important in high context communications. A few
words can often communicate a powerful message very effectively in contrast to a low
context culture where the communicator needs to be much more explicit and the value of a
single word is less important. In Arab societies, one often hears the term “the meaning is in
the poet’s heart” to refer to a situation where much can be read from a just few words. Given
the cultural idiosyncrasies of such societies (high power distance and high context) and their
relatively developing IT infrastructures one is likely to expect information overload to be
perceived as less of a problem, contrary to what is suggested (or implied) by the empirical
study of Kock, Aguila-Obra and Padilla-Melendez.
VI. TECHNOLOGY OR SELF-DISCIPLINE?
Given the “unregulated” nature of the Web, the problem of information overload is unlikely
to be addressed on a global level. What will be important in the years to come will be our
ability to adopt certain conventions or disciplines for dealing with information (particularly
that which is of use to us for our practical and intellectual purposes). It is ironic that, despite
huge investments in productivity desktop applications and the continuous updates of those
applications, very little attention was given to the issue of information in terms of how best to
store it, organize it and retrieve it. Much of this task is often left to the user. Assigning names
to files and creating folders and sub-folders to store, organize and retrieve our files is a task
that many of us have become used to. However, we all know how much time we often spend
trying to find a document that we happened to urgently need to retrieve but found it difficult
to do so without too much effort and resorting to using the “search” tools that have become a
feature of many of those desktop productivity applications. Prior to 1995 (before the release
of Windows 1995 and Windows NT 3.51) we were constrained by an eight character naming
limit for our files and folders due to technology limitations inherent in the way operating
systems functioned. This situation created an impediment for any meaningful way to organize
information. Even when useful work information is hosted on company websites finding that
information is often a struggle. I, for one, have often resorted to Google to find information
that was expected to be found in certain websites because I was unable to find it in those
websites due to bad design.
There are now many KM-oriented software tools aimed at helping organizations make better
use of their information. Those systems do not come cheap. What is worrying, however, is
that rather than helping those organizations overcome problems of information overload they
may run the risk of adding to information overload as indicated above.
Some authors (Tsui, Cheong and Sabetzadeh, 2011) even conceptualize the adoption of cloud
computing technology for managing information (and knowledge) at the individual level as a
means of Knowledge as a Service (KaaS). Using such a platform, cloud users, according to
those authors, will be able to store, retrieve, evaluate and organize their personal information.
Most importantly, they will be able to access their cloud-hosted information at anytime and
anywhere. In fact, many of the available (free and subscription-based) productivity
applications (e.g., Google Apps, Google Apps for Education, Google Apps for Business,
Microsoft’s Office.live.com, Education Live@edu, Office 365) are cloud-based and they
already offer, more or less, the same functionality proposed by such authors. However, the
benefit of using such cloud-based systems will need to be investigated further. Many of them,
nevertheless, are still fundamentally based on the traditional model of productivity
In the absence of useful, affordable and novel information and/or knowledge-oriented
software solutions, what is needed in my view are universal conventions and techniques for
helping individuals (and organizations) make better use of their information through current
and familiar software and ICT tools. It might even be useful to introduce such conventions
and techniques as part of students and professionals’ schooling in soft skills. Taking this task
more seriously by way of introducing it as part of a college or university curriculum might
turn out to be even more rewarding.
Information overload, as explained in this article, is a phenomenon that is likely to continue
to be a feature of our Web era. As a consequence, many of the negative side-effects of this
phenomenon will persist, both at the personal and organizational levels. There will be no
shortage of software tools to help (as would be claimed by their developers) to manage our
information and aid our knowledge-building process. Given the negative (and in some cases
unknown) track record of such tools, their future success will depend on their ability to help
individuals and organizations cope with information overload.
Meanwhile, a great deal can be achieved with what we already have in terms of ICT tools
provided that we begin to establish some universal conventions on how we search, store,
retrieve and transmit our personal and organizational information in order to facilitate our
access to useful information, help our knowledge-building process and reduce some of the
other negative consequences that are associated with feelings of being lost and/or
overwhelmed with too much information.
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