To say Alvin Toffler was ahead of his time is like saying Michael Jordan was pretty good at stuffing a large orange ball through a metal hoop.

The futurist coined the term Information Overload back in 1970 to describe the difficulty to grasp an issue or make a decision in the presence of too much information.

This was 41 years ago — 23 years before the World-Wide Web emerged. So either Toffler was himself easily confused by information, or just very prescient (considering his big-brain credentials, it’s probably the latter).

One research firm, Basex, estimated in 2007 that the distraction of e-mail caused a $650 billion drag on the U.S. economy.

Now, some might argue that the problem is not too much information. It’s bad or low-quality information mixed in with the good. And the resulting difficulty in differentiating between the two.

Others might argue that the problem is too much raw Data, and too little expert Knowledge.

I don’t know. All I know is that I experience the dizzying paralysis of Information Overload many times daily, whether reading Yelp reviews of a new restaurant, or researching a flatscreen TV purchase, or simply sifting through my e-mail at work.

And my wife hesitates to upgrade to a smartphone because she worries that anytime, anywhere access to apps (FaceBook Mobile, TweetDeck for iOS) and e-mail will steal her few remaining brain cells not already allocated towards kids, house, food, driving, chores, etc.

I suspect the ambivalence that some readers might harbor towards enterprise mobility and mobile business apps stems from a similar fear.

Specifically: fancy blinking dashboards that let you drill down all the way to hyper-granular real-time data will overload you even more, becoming the Second Coming of Work E-mail.

That could paralyze the best of managers and lead to poor decisionmaking, a focus on tactics at the expense of strategy, and creat a reactionary rather than deep-thinking culture.

Oliver Bussmann, CIO at my parent company, SAP, acknowledges that this is something his team has given a bit of thought on how to prevent this.

With 10,000 iPads and 4,000 iPhones in use internally, SAP has deployed, or is in the process of deploying, 28 business apps to different teams inside SAP.

Take the mobile BI and analytics app, BusinessObjects Explorer built by SAP. Using the HANA in-memory data engine, salespeople can use BusinessObjects Explorer to query and drill into 12 million active customer records and 700 million historical records in real-time, versus the 4-5 hours it used to take to run a report.

And employees are taking advantage, with some checking dashboards and KPIs every 5-10 minutes, or the same frequency that they check e-mail on their smartphone, he says.

For some employees, that is the right pace and the right amount of data. For others that need to focus only on the big picture, like SAP co-CEO Bill McDermott, that would be irrelevant data and information overload.

So Bussmann’s team made sure to configure the BusinessObjects Explorer for his iPad to be “very simple.” The default view shows revenue pipeline for the top 100 customers. McDermott also gets 2-3 other macro-views of SAP’s business data.

On the other hand, middle managers and very tech-savvy folks are allowed to slice and dice all of the data using more than 34 different selection criteria, he said.

I think this makes sense. Just as the app’s UI design is key, so is the flexibility for integrators or IT to create different default views and settings for different kinds of employees. One-size-does-not-fit-all in the business world.

This is different than e-mail, where it’s difficult to enforce a gateway against e-mail you don’t want. People you don’t want to hear from will keep sending you mails.

The moral: mobile business apps don’t have to contribute to Information Overload. Tuned properly for the right employee, they can deliver the right level of data to the right people.

The result? Knowledge, not noise. Learning, not overload. Decisions, not paralysis.


Now for something pretty related: SAP is hosting a webinar tomorrow (Tuesday Oct. 18) at 11 AM ET/8 am PT on its new HR and HCM (human capital management) apps.

SAP VP of marketing for HCM Vanessa Sailor and Nish Pangali, director of SAP’s HCM Center of Excellence will take you through a half-dozen new apps.

You can register for this webinar here.