Fighting Information Overload

Knowledge management software helps you find the most relevant, most useful data.
Alix StuartMarch 1, 2001

Despite its corporate intranet, its vast network of servers, and plenty of business intelligence tools, Ericsson Research Canada knew full well that there were lots of duplicate efforts among its 103,000 employees. One big reason, says Anders Hemre, the company’s chief knowledge officer, is that the employees, like workers everywhere, tend to rely on personal networks for information, rather than on a central data repository.

Despite advances in technology, often it’s simply easier to ask the person in the next cube about a project, schedule, or what have you. Trouble is, what’s efficient for one person at one moment is not necessarily what’s best for the organization as a whole. No matter how bright the person next door may be, the explosion in information of all types guarantees that the shoulder-tapping method will often yield less than optimum results.

So last year, when Hemre was charged with improving the flow of internal information, he modeled his approach on a very simple structure: the lunch table. Believing that casual, give-and-take lunchtime conversations on current issues generate the most useful information, Hemre spent a year working with a consultant to organize extradepartmental “communities of practice” that would draw together people with similar business interests for loosely structured brainstorming and dialoguing sessions.

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Then he added a technologic component. Organik, a searchable database organized around user-submitted questions and answers, provides a place for the groups to log insights that emerge from the meetings. “They go through face-to-face discussions about the issues first, then we take them to technology,” says Hemre. Users can later query the database with natural-language questions and receive answers to similar questions. They can also find people Organik has identified as subject experts based on their previous responses.

Why Make More Work for Yourself?

The idea that electronically stored information should follow, rather than change, human interaction is one important development in the effort to help people cope with the oft-lamented “information overload” problem. “Too many people who do knowledge management create extra work as they add information” to the corporate storehouse, says John Seely Brown, chief scientist at Xerox Corp. and a leading expert on search technology. “Technology should be a byproduct of what you’re already doing.”

While Ericsson’s program is only in the pilot stage, Hemre says that “we [already] see a big difference between this and asking people to post their documents on a shared server, because this leads to better dialogue.” He says the next step will be to integrate sources like an intranet and business intelligence tools into Organik, so that employees don’t miss valuable information that resides elsewhere.

Companies have been steadily increasing their efforts to leverage all the information that exists within their walls, whether in databases, on the Web, or in employees’ minds. Collaborative applications accounted for nearly 40 percent of knowledge management software revenues in 1999, according to IDC, outpacing sales of content management and data warehousing products. Often the technology is nothing fancy, but is deployed in new ways.

During a recent series of Web-based meetings, for example, Agilent Corp. CFO Robert Walker made sure participants had the chance to “chat” online, just as they would have had they met in person. “That’s where information gets exchanged,” he says. Participants could type comments and questions to one another during the management presentation, the equivalent of “whispering in the back of the room,” Walker says, and with management’s blessing. Walker made it a point to observe the “fascinating side conversations” that took place, giving him insight into employees’ reactions.

Making Data More Relevant

These approaches work, experts say, because they go beyond making data available — they make it relevant. That principle is guiding a number of technology developments. Search engine enhancer Outride, for instance, which spun out from Xerox’s Palo Alto (Calif.) Research Center (PARC) last December (and has since been acquired by Google), acts like a helpful librarian, refining and expanding searches based on a user’s search history. The software “reads” text documents (anything from Web pages to news feeds to internal E-mails), summarizes and categorizes them, then delivers the most pertinent ones to the user. Inxight, another PARC spinout, adds a visual component; its Hyberbolic Tree software allows word-weary users to turn text into maps, thus making Web sites more navigable and data easier to interpret.

Another product that emphasizes visual presentation is ClearForest. It reconfigures news feeds and other data into whirlpool-like arrangements in which color-coded arrows lead the reader from a main topic, such as a competitor, to a related topic, such as companies the competitor is acquiring, with one-sentence summaries for each topic. Dow Chemical Corp. and Eastman Kodak Co. turned to the software to help them sift through reams of patent documentation as they searched for technical experts for hire.

Last year, Credit Suisse began to offer the product to its high-net-worth investors in Italy, and will soon bundle it with in-house research and roll it out to customers across Europe. “We see it as a competitive advantage,” says David Chinn, marketing director for “Clients will be able to quickly search through news” and make better investment decisions.

Even those on the cutting edge, however, say that one key to information overload is to simply tune out some sources. Brown doesn’t own a television, and chooses reading material based on the amount of time that has gone into preparing it — preferring books, for example, to daily newspapers. Walker is similarly choosy, and also delegates knowledge consumption. “You don’t need to know everything that goes on in the organization,” he says. “There needs to be a letting go and a trusting of co-workers.” And, of course, a handy lunch table.

Alix Nyberg is a staff writer for CFO.

Show or Tell?

Transforming text-based information into some sort of visual representation can make Web sites easier to navigate, an important step in fighting information overload. Visualizations “help keep you located in a complex space, so you know where you’ve been and where you might want to go next,” says Xerox researcher John Seely Brown. This is a driving principle behind products like Inxight and ClearForest, as well as Room 102, an Internet search engine that presents results in a slideshow version of Web pages as well as text-only summaries.

Computer users may balk at that approach, however, because they think that graphical representations of data will take longer to download. But according to User Interface Engineering, or UIE, a Bradford, Mass.-based company that researches “what people find frustrating about technology,” perceptions of “fast” and “slow” are influenced far more by whether a user can complete a given task. A well-organized site that loads slowly due to heavy graphical content is often perceived as fast, while a quick-loading site that frustrates users with its poor navigation scheme is perceived as slow. UIE’s director of instruction, Lori Landesman, says users often don’t realize that their (mis)perceptions of slow versus fast are shaped by factors other than download times.

Graphics can help, but they aren’t a cure-all. UIE has found that even Web sites that get the most positive responses, like and, satisfy users’ missions only 42 percent of the time at best. Onsite search engines actually decrease the chances of a user finding desired information by half, usually because it’s hard to anticipate what terms he or she will choose. One answer, ironically, is to use more text, in the form of links. Landesman says that descriptive links, versus cryptic words or phrases, greatly enhance a site’s navigability. It’s not that graphics don’t help, she adds, but the key is to use them to present information, not simply to dress up a site. “What we find,” she concludes, “is that people think a site is fun if they can find what they’re looking for.” —A.N.

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