Knowledge Overload and Its Failure Pathways

It would perhaps be an ideal world if we as humans were to have both the biological longevity and cognitive capacity to accumulate limitless amounts of valuable knowledge. Unfortunately, barring significant scientific progress that would allow such human�enhancement or - acting as a replacement - artificial intelligence (AI) advancing to a level that is at least on par with the human brain's many capabilities, we are stuck with what nature and evolution has bestowed upon us. Further, even if there were to be enormous progress in AI, one can imagine that a human or group of humans will�ultimately�be responsible for managing that remarkable piece of technology.

With that understanding, for all of the benefits that the Information Age has brought to humanity, the�unprecedented and exponential growth in knowledge has presented a serious quandary for our species. Of course, no one would suggest that any of this knowledge, even if all relevant to a particular individual or organisation's interests, is necessarily easy to find. That presents an altogether different problem of�knowledge�accessibility.� Nevertheless, as Mary Midgley stresses (see previous post), no one in this day and age could possibly have the ability to read/watch/listen to all of the vast streams of knowledge flooding into our world.

Knowledge overload presents major challenges both at the individual and organisational level. Evolution has had nowhere near sufficient time to adapt our physiology from the serious though limited concerns of our�earliest ancestors to that of the modern worker plugged into the 24/7 urban information network.�We are now faced with streams of knowledge, information or data that go far beyond the ability of even the most sophisticated individuals and organisations to fully process them.

Further, this breach in processing capacity can lead to�knowledge anxiety -�stress caused by the difference between what we know and what we think we need to know - which�in turn further influences cognition (and health), including�decision making and our approach to risk.�This becomes a serious problem in knowledge dominant work environments. Even in less knowledge critical settings, no technology or machinery, no matter how sophisticated, is of any real value in a production setting without the people to use it in its appropriate context.

Let us imagine then an organisation with such knowledge overloaded individuals both in seemingly critical and non-critical positions of responsibility. As any organisation is ultimately a complex integrated system (some may make you question this reality), any malfunctioning unit, which is what members with a decline in cognitive performance can be described as, will negatively affect sum performance. Due to the system's integrated nature, the magnitude of positive feedback cannot necessarily be estimated by the status/role of the affected individual/s within the organisation. The ensuing negative chain reaction of events in such a scenario can just as easily come to fruition via different and less explicit pathways. The larger the organisation, the more complex the system evolves to be, bringing with it greater pathways to failure. For �evidence of this we need look no further than one of the most complex systems that we know of - the Ecosystem, where a planetary temperature rise of a few degrees more than at present could reduce Earth-life's diversity and biomass to extremely low levels-or even cause planetary sterility through mass extinction (see Peter Ward's TheMedea Hypothesis).

So how do we go about avoiding knowledge overload and its associated negative impacts (potentially organisational extinction)? Firstly we must recognise that more knowledge does not equal better knowledge, particularly if not directly relevant to �an organisation's goals (this ties up with the notion of knowledge value, discussed in my previous post). Additionally, if the processing capacity does not exist for such volumes of knowledge, the system will be overloaded with a subsequent decline in knowledge performance. This translates into potentially bad decisions�and missing what could be valuable pieces of knowledge with serious implications for the organisation. The more knowledge dependent/intensive the environment, the greater the likelihood of a negative outcome.

The only path towards avoiding this overwhelming tsunami of knowledge is to ensure that highly customised, sophisticated and objective-dependent knowledge management systems are designed, implemented and maintained at the very core of every organisation where knowledge contributes to success.

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