Getting out from under the information deluge

Today’s workplace is filled with all manner of stress, from chemical or biological agents, environmental conditions, external stimuli, or events that cause stress to an organism. Another one of these is the explosion of information that is drowning workers because of mobile connectivity, email, and documents.

A recent Deloitte study shows that despite checking their mobile devices up to 150 times per day and being always on, 72 percent of employees can’t find the information they need in corporate information systems. More than half of HR executives surveyed believe their companies are not doing a good job helping the workforce with the information suffocation and the stresses of today’s workplace.

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Note that 57 percent rate their companies as weak in helping leaders manage demanding schedules and expectations.

The Deloitte team cited Julian Birkinshaw and Jordan Cohen, who researched how knowledge workers can deal with demanding schedules and they found, unsurprisingly, that the best course is to eliminate or delegate unimportant tasks and spend more time on important ones. Forty-one percent of an individual’s time is wasted on discretionary activities that could be handed over to others to make room for important, fulfilling activities or more down time.

The pair led “interventions” with 15 executives at different companies with this strategy, and it led to six hours less of desk work and two hours less of meetings. At one company, a sales exec chopped administrative tasks and meetings to focus on helping her staff. Sales increased 5 percent over a three-week trial period.

These are the costs of feeling entangled in a web of commitments that many company cultures engender. Instead of trying to decrease overcommitment and making the company fast-and-loose, there is a steady pressure to focus on nonessential, time-wasting activities: sitting in on weekly status meetings, reading reports from other groups, filling out expense reports. All those should be eliminated.

Leaders should move to strip out the red tape and administrative headaches currently tying up the workforce, and cut back on the amount of unnecessary information exchange — in email, documents, or meetings. A study uncovered that when an executive sends out just one email it cascades, creating an “email contagion.” So if executives cut 100 emails from 200 per day an 80 person company, then the group collectively drops from 1,920 emails to 783. This translates to 231 work weeks per year recovered.

This is why Jeff Bezos famously shouted, “No! Communication is terrible!” when someone suggested that various groups at Amazon needed to communicate more. He had a vision of a decentralized, fast-and-loose company, where small groups and individuals can decide what to do and how to do it without getting bogged down in a morass of communication. And this is a central tenet of “leanership:” just enough communication, administration, and management as necessary, and no more.

Sameer Patel on social’s tussle with email

I wrote a post recently, The Surprising Truth: Technology Is Aging in Reverse, that explored some thoughts from Nassim Taleb about how older technology is likely to be with us a long time, because it gets entrenched in our use cases. I made the fairly obvious argument that email is such a technology, and that it’s likely to be with us for a long time.
Sameer Patel of SAP had some thoughts on that, starting with Alan Lepofsky’s argument that using social networks as alternatives to email doesn’t really move the needle: they can just amplify things by creating email notifications themselves.

Sameer Patel, Social’s Tussle with Email
Look, information overload is absolutely a huge problem. But enterprise social networking isn’t the obvious solution. What’s needed is what Stowe describes as “new communication technologies have to be a full order of magnitude better that those that came earlier”. That full order of magnitude won’t come from just shifting notifications from Outlook to social network feeds. Rather, it will come from making it exponentially more efficient to message, to collaborate and to share in radically different ways where the outcome is 5-10-50 times better. And one of those ways is to infuse:

  1. Comprehensive people discovery based on new identity paradigms, and
  2. Collaboration into core business activities and tasks and in a way that implicitly shows how collaboration capabilities available at whatever point of action — a business event like discussing an invoice exception, or facilitating sales budgeting within your Finance ERP application, or dispute resolution with a supplier — making it far more effective to drive execution and decisions than anything that your zero-IQ email inbox can even dream of handling.

Nassim points a new headache: regardless of your good intentions to kill email, the odd are against you. Moving from one dumb messaging paradigm like email to another dumb messaging paradigm like stand-alone social networking won’t cut it.
But in actuality, the stakes are really high. On one hand, most core business activities have a huge unstructured component that happens outside transaction systems such as CRM, Talent Management or Supply Chain. But we have a way to go when it comes to leveraging social tools to facilitate this change. On the other hand, none of us need statistics to really convince ourselves that email bankruptcy is a fact of working life for almost all of us. So clearly the opportunity to show a better approach is ripe.

Sameer is making several points here:

  1. Work media (enterprise social networks) have the promise of breaking open the closed communication models of email’s ‘dumb messaging paradigm’, but are actually relatively closed  themselves. For example, most of these solutions don’t implement anything like the open follower model of Twitter and Tumblr. Work media is very bound to a 1990s’ project mentality, where people are invited to projects and that’s the information that flows into their activity streams.
  2. Yes, a great deal of the richness of business collaboration, communication, and coordination takes place outside of transactional systems and communication tools. We can hope that new tools will show up to capture more of what’s going on.
  3. Email is still with us, because social tools haven’t gone far enough to make email obsolete, they haven’t come close to the order of magnitude improvement I suggested was necessary to jettison email altogether.

The value of stillness

Often we only learn to value something when we feel its absence, so perhaps it makes sense that perpetually roaming travel writer Pico Iyer is a powerful advocate for stillness. In a recent interview he discusses the value of quiet for the perpetually plugged-in.

Take Control of Your Inbox: 9 Ways to Sort Email

I make extensive use of smart folders and tags to sort my email into logical groups that I can easily process all at once. The key is to use rules and filters that automatically sort my email without any additional intervention from me.

Do We Have Too Many Filters, Or Not Enough?

Media guru Clay Shirky once famously said that the problem of the modern age isn’t information overload at all, it’s “filter failure” — and many new services have been built to help with that. But Eli Pariser says the cure could be worse than the disease.

11 Tips for Dealing With Email Overload

A primary source of information overload is our email inboxes. While I’ve previously mentioned a few strategies for dealing with email overload, I think it’s a good time for a post with comprehensive rundown of my tips for managing email.

How to Hack RSS to Reduce Information Overload

The key to cutting information overload is to more efficiently find the data that you want among the data that you don’t care about. I wanted to share some of the techniques that I use to hack and filter my RSS feed to prioritize relevant information.

Tips for Managing Social Media Information Overload

Last week, I gave some tips for managing information overload, primarily with a focus on dealing with email overload. I wanted to follow up this week with a few more suggestions for dealing with the information overload that results from participation in social media.

Tips for Handling Information Overload

The reality for anyone who does most of their work online is that information is endless, and keeping up with the most important information without becoming overwhelmed can be quite a challenge.