Archive for Information Overload

The Death of Courtesy – Too busy to respond

// January 15th, 2010 // 1 Comment » // Information Overload

I am really struck by Peter Bregman’s post on the Harvard Business Review site. He talks about a friend pitching for a piece of work and getting no response to follow-up voicemails or messages. This appears to be business as usual for a lot of people these days.

Peter asks (via email) the opinion of his brother, a film producer who gets 400+ emails a day. I think the response is really interesting:

“If Sam [the person being chased] has 400 emails to answer a day, 200 of which are crisis emails that he’s prioritizing and answering at, say, 2 AM on a holiday night — LIKE THIS EMAIL — then it’s not Sam’s obligation to write 200 more 30-second emails to people who Sam doesn’t need to write to. Alex [the person chasing] just needs to wait.”

I wonder about the nature of the 200 “crisis” emails? What’s happening in Haiti is a crisis. This sentiment is not untypical of a number of senior corporate people that I know who wind themselves up into a frenzy of self-dramatizing email activity in which nothing matters beyond the next incoming message. Of course, there’s no point bugging people like that – would you really want to work with them in the first place?

Groom Updates Facebook Status… During Wedding Ceremony

// December 8th, 2009 // 1 Comment » // Information Overload

I was appalled when I first saw the headline about Dana Hanna on MSNBC. But if you watch the brief video of the ceremony (which he posted on YouTube) it’s actually quite sweet and everyone, including the bride and minister, appear to take it with good humour. I’m even prepared to believe there is a hint of irony in what he did.

Nevertheless, on an occasion where you are, in theory, surrounded – physically – by all your nearest and dearest, the electronic gossip wires still appear to exert a powerful pull. For Generation Y types, what is visible to the outside world digitally is possibly of more importance than what your immediate circle of family and friends might be experiencing. In terms of scale, it almost undoubtedly is since 350,000 people and counting have seen the video clip. But take the same behviour and put it in an organisational context and we have a partial explanation for the so-called “addiction” to BlackBerrys. That message probably isn’t something that affects your reputation in the digital universe – but it might be, and you won’t know until you check.

Command and Control Isn’t Dead – It’s All That’s Left

// November 24th, 2009 // No Comments » // Information Overload

Writing in the Economist, Carol Bartz of Yahoo suggests that “the online era has made command-and-control management as dead as dial-up internet” because distribution of information can no longer be managed in a traditional hierarchical fashion. In her management blog, Lucy Kellaway of the FT counters this by making the observation – with which I agree - that, in today’s organisations, people are responding to emails from their bosses and ignoring everything else. This behaviour often extends to the compulsive checking of BlackBerrys at all hours, principally to see if the boss or other high-status person has sent a message.

Bartz blurs the internal flow of communication with the external “deluge” of information and rumour that also has to be dealt with but she does not really tackle how you manage the internal issue. I would argue this is one of the leader’s most important roles – to stop the information overload productivity drain and ensure that people are engaging with one another effectively.

v3.co.uk Delivers 3-Day Summit on Information Overload

// November 13th, 2009 // No Comments » // Information Overload

On Tuesday, I was invited to be part of the expert panel discussion that launched the three-day summit on Information Overload run by v3.co.uk (previously known us vnnunet).

Given the nature of the audience, the summit as a whole has a technical emphasis and is sponsored by IBM. Having said that, there was a willingness on the panel I took part in to discuss the behavioural issues as well. If you have an hour to spare, you can watch the discussion here. For my part, I laid out how I felt organisations and individuals were being affected by the three main threads of information overload: email overload, digital interruptions at work and mobility (e.g. BlackBerry).

There is a wealth of other video debates and articles on v3’s site which is particularly rich in technical aspects of information overload such as storage and data centres. A comment article by Ian Williams, however, is a good expression of the view – which I share – that this is more about management than anything else.

Information Overload Summit – Tuesday November 10th

// November 5th, 2009 // No Comments » // Information Overload

On Tuesday I am off to Incisive Media’s Soho studio to be part of an expert panel in a live web broadcast at 11am; this event kicks off  the V3 (pka vnu.net) Information Overload Summit which lasts for three days. On the panel with me are representatives from companies including IBM, The National Computing Centre and Freeform Dynamics. Much of the thrust of the summit will be about technology so I am looking forward to introducing the human element into the equation.

Lily Allen’s a “Neo-Luddite” – Are You?

// October 23rd, 2009 // Comments Off // Information Overload

British pop-star Lily has reportedly turned her back on Twitter and Facebook and disposed of her Blackberry, PC and Macbook; all after her boyfriend demanded she choose between him and Twitter. Apparently, her last post on Twitter was: “I am a neo-Luddite. Goodbye.”

Clearly, some of this all-pervasive use of the latest communications technology has got out of control. But I would not consider myself a Luddite and have always used a BlackBerry quite happily. The key is knowing when to switch it off. Information overload can be reduced or eliminated with the right tools and disciplines.

Speaking of Luddites, I just finished reading Neil Postman’s prescient “Amusing Ourselves to Death” written in 1985. In it he writes: “We must not delude ourselves with preposterous notions such as the straight Luddite position.”

My guess is that Lily Allen won’t be that concerned…

France Telecom CFO Blames Stress on Email

// September 30th, 2009 // Comments Off // Information Overload

It was refreshing to read the candid comments of France Telecom CFO Gervais Pellissier on round-the-clock emailing which were covered by Reuters. This got some dramatic coverage in some press reports as FT is experiencing a spate of suicides, some at company premises. While no one, including Pellissier, attributes the suicides  directly to email, he does acknowledge that employees have more troubled lives than was the case before technology caused work to bleed so pervasively into personal life: “That is sprobably something we’ve not undertaken,” he says, “not only at France Telecom but, it’s more a global society issue, the impact of the new ways of working on personal behaviour.”

I could not agree more. As to what to do about it, I think it is entirely possible for organisations to reverse this trend, firstly by understanding what psychological drivers cause us to use new technology in the way we do and secondly, by putting in place organisational codes of practice that are adhered to with discipline.

Can we Innovate Ourselves out of Information Overload?

// September 22nd, 2009 // 2 Comments » // Information Overload

Paul Hemp’s excellent article in the September 2009 issue of Harvard Business Review, titled “Death by Information Overload”, has been followed by a couple of other pieces that include a number of  technological approaches to the issue.

Philip Delves Broughton in yesterday’s Evening Standard cites Hemp’s piece and goes on to offer a few suggestions of his own. One that I particularly like the sound of is “Dark Room for Windows” which recreates the ancient experience of working on word-processing software and having nothing else running on the PC – like a blank piece of paper in the typewriter. That’s exactly how I started out as a student writing software user guides for a US bank in my holidays in their London office with just a PC on my desk and only a fixed phone and the physical post to interrupt me. Mark Gibbs in Network World offers Gist, something that aggregates email with RSS feeds, mails from LinkedIn, Facebook etc.

I am less convinced by Leechblock which you can set up to admonish you for spending too long on Facebook. With some of these new services, there is a sense that, like a hopeless herion addict, we need yet another drug to ease us out of our addiction. Personally, while I do use Xobni to make my inbox a bit easier to manage, I am not a huge enthusiast for heaping more technology on top of the surfeit of channels and devices that we already have. We can, after all, simply decide that we are not going to allow all these things to distract us – after all, is using Dark Room not the same as turning off all alerts and simply exercising our free will and focusing on a specific task?

For me this all boils down to understanding human psychology and its collision with a work environment that abounds with new channels which are increasingly location and time independent. Yet more technology has its uses but the route out of information overload is more likely to be found in the old-fashioned (and free) virtues of self-discipline and focus.

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