Article

• Apr 26 2022

Too much of a good thing? The impact of data overload

6 min read

In business, data is a lot like water — absolutely essential for survival, but when there’s too much of it, you can’t handle it, or it’s in the wrong place, it can wreak havoc or even drown you.

Businesses have more data than ever. The world creates 2.5 quintillion bytes of data every day, and companies are quite rightly using the wealth of information to refine their strategies, targets, and decisions. However, with data touching and shaping almost everything, it’s easy to get obsessed with it. Many companies jumped on the bandwagon of big data, which ultimately left many crushed under the weight of the information they collected.

Data obsession and over collection can mean many things, including a preoccupation with minute details, attachment to a specific metric, missing the big picture, choice paralysis, or excessive faith in information that may be useless or misleading.

When that’s the case, how do you make sure that your data is under control, accurate, and, above all, useful?

Obsession with specific metrics

Ironically, information overload can mean an obsession with just one data point.

The availability of data means that lots of people in a company can find information and statistics that touch their role or their department. While it’s a good thing that individuals want to improve their performance metrics, there’s not much use in their increasing (or decreasing) one number and considering that to represent departmental success. Of course, nothing is ever so straightforward.

That can be a problem of incentive. If you task a department with achieving something very specific, or make bonuses contingent on the movement of one metric, people will inevitably spend all of their time and energy on that.

Similarly, those in senior positions who are time poor can latch on to one or a few data points and equate them, consciously or unconsciously, with the wider performance of the company. That can mean the company as a whole works towards the improvement of one data point. That narrow focus endangers meaningful growth and progress by distracting from the wider story.

Missing the big picture

Just as obsessing over single data points can undermine true understanding, so can too broad a view, or failure to join the dots between data.

Those who aren’t used to processing or interpreting data can be easily overwhelmed by it. That can result in three behaviours:

  • Latching on to one comprehensible data point (as above)
  • Reading a wide range of data, but not noticing patterns
  • Ignoring the data

The presence of any of those means that information isn’t being used. Not every company will or can have employees who are all data literate, so it’s important that some are not only skilful at understanding data, but also at relating it to commercial goals, and communicating it to a less expert audience.

Those people can be hard to come by, and there’s a lot of competition for their services, which is why expert partners are so important in securing them. Specialists like RPI locate and place the unique talent that fits your business and your commercial data needs.

The right experts will act as a filter for those who might be overwhelmed by the amount of information to process. They cut through the noise, find the meaning in the data, and present it in a way that anyone can appreciate.

Design and presentation

It’s possible that you don’t have a data overload problem, but a presentation problem. The result can look the same, but the root is different.

60% of people understand charts and graphs better than they understand text, and it’s important to understand what format will resonate with your teams. However, it’s not as simple as asking whether someone prefers a spreadsheet or a graph. You need people who understand what data to present to whom, when, and how. That, again, is where the combination of business and data expertise is necessary.

Choice paralysis

Hick’s Law states that the more options you present, the longer a decision takes. Apply that to information, and you can see how an overwhelming number of data points could paralyse a team member or a decision-maker.

Even those with a strong commercial background, when faced with a wall of business information, can struggle to organise the data or translate it into action. With an overwhelming number of data sources, it can be difficult to decide where to start, what to prioritise, and what to ignore.

While data specialists wouldn’t be paralysed by the task of processing or interpreting data, they might not do it in the most commercial way, and the information that they circulate may not be of the most strategic value to the company.

Bad data

On the whole, more data is a good thing. Even if not all of the data that a company gathers is useful, a greater overall amount means that the useful information should increase. Yet this isn’t always the case. It’s important to remember that there is such a thing as irrelevant data. The mindset to discourage is: ‘Data is useful. This is data, therefore it’s useful.’

That failure to discriminate between relevant and irrelevant data leads to data overload more often than not. If people don’t know what to discard, they will be left overwhelmed.

Your teams should also remain sceptical. Data can be incorrect or misleading. It’s not an infallible master, and it’s incumbent on everyone who uses it to keep that in mind. Data should be in service of the business — the business should not operate in service to data. That’s where data governance provides the checks and balances required to maintain data quality, keeping information consistent and trustworthy.

A culture that values and champions data is important, but worship of it is dangerous. Your teams should feel empowered to challenge or question data that doesn’t look or feel right, even if they themselves are not data specialists. When you’re deliberate and strategic in your choice of data systems and platforms, you can ensure that they prioritise the data that matters to the business as a whole, as well as specific teams, and that it presents it accessibly.

To find the rare and sought-after talent that combines data expertise with business sense, you need a wide network and deep expertise in an extensive range of specialisms. Get in touch to find out how RPI can help you fill your teams with experts who can facilitate and guide your data projects, and leaders who will transform your data culture.

RPI provides access to the top leadership and technology talent globally