Savvy information managers focus on deploying best-of-breed tools in support of their mission, be it BI, CRM, governance and compliance, or predictive analytics. While these tools can go a long way in addressing organizational challenges, they can also be stopped cold by the elephant in the room, information overload.
Information overload describes an excess of information that results in the loss of ability to make decisions, process information expeditiously and prioritize tasks effectively. Information overload causes people to lose their ability to manage thoughts and ideas.
The huge increase in knowledge work in the economy, coupled with the proliferation of technology, means that almost no one is immune to the problem. In fact, research conducted at Basex and included in my latest book, "Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization," shows that the problem cost the U.S. economy around $997 billion in 2010.
We used data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the U.S. Census Bureau to estimate that there are approximately 78.6 million knowledge workers in the U.S. alone. These people hold a variety of jobs and responsibilities ranging from accounting clerk and medical technician to research scientist and CIO.
Regardless of the job and individual, each worker loses somewhere between 15 to 25 percent of his day due to the problem. And what exactly is the problem? Let's start with what it's not.
It isn't too much email, although email is a big part of the problem. It isn't search failures, although our inability to find things takes a huge toll. It isn't merely the explosion of technology that the workplace has seen in the past decade, even though this is also a contributor. And it isn't only the explosion of data that we've seen over the past 25 years, although more data is thrust in our direction each and every day than was consumed in the course of a lifetime by a single knowledge worker 100 years ago.
One of the biggest problems relating to information overload is actually a confluence of issues. Today, we have multiple tools at our fingertips with which we can create, save and forward information to thousands of people (if not more) with a single click.
Six years ago, we began to observe a phenomenon in our research that we named "recovery time." Recovery time is the amount of time it takes a worker to get back to where he was in his work or thought process prior to an interruption. Our research told us that this takes somewhere between 10 to 20 times the duration of the interruption. A 30-second interruption could require five minutes of recovery time.
Interruptions come in many forms - most prominently telephone calls, instant messages, text messages and social network messages - not to mention that many knowledge workers have relatively short attention spans, which leads to numerous self-interruptions. Since this occurs myriad times each day, the recovery time adds up and becomes a significant drain on the knowledge worker's resources.
When one then adds in a combination of the attitude of entitlement that has become the norm with many newer workers (in part because they grew up in a social environment that awarded medals to teams for coming in last and because Mr. Rogers inculcated into each of them that they were special) and a movement in society that not only thrives on, but demands instant gratification (an outgrowth of the introduction of the original FedEx service in April 1973), one then has a recipe for disaster.
The underpinnings of knowledge work are thought and reflection, but an analysis of the knowledge worker’s typical day shows that only 5 percent is available for sitting back, thinking, and reflecting and that the Information Overload-related events occupy the greatest part of the day.
The problem of information overload is not unnoticed, but most managers are unaware of the huge costs. One Fortune 500 company estimates that information overload impacts its bottom line $1 billion per year.
A few additional figures uncovered in our research:
- A minimum of 28 billion hours is lost each year to information overload in the U.S.
- Processing 100 emails can occupy more than half of a worker's day.
- 58 percent of government workers spend half the workday filing, deleting or sorting information, at an annual cost of almost $31 billion dollars.
- 66 percent of knowledge workers feel they don't have enough time to get all of their work done.
- 94 percent of those surveyed at some point have felt overwhelmed by information to the point of incapacitation.
What can be done about the problem? Some solutions are simple, in hindsight. For example, think about a recent email exchange you were a part of, one that went on for a few days. In retrospect, the issue could most likely have been resolved with a short conference call.
What about the numerous people who don't seem to understand your email messages? Start reading messages for clarity before clicking send, use a subject line that clearly denotes the topic of the message, and stop combining multiple unrelated themes in one email.
There's a lot that can be done to lessen the impact of information overload. Clear and concise communication among co-workers and team members, particularly in email, can make a difference in simplifying the message, reducing the clutter and maintaining focus.
Because email is a major contributor to information overload, here are eight email tips from my new book, Overload.
- Use restraint in communications. Don’t cc the world, don’t include more people than necessary in any communication, and avoid reply-to-all at all costs.
- Write clearly. Better yet, refrain from combining multiple themes and requests in one single email. And make sure the subject is specific as opposed to general (writing “Help needed” without further details helps no one, especially the recipient). These simple steps will add instant clarity with little effort.
- Read what you write – before you click send. Unclear communications result in excessive and unnecessary back-and-forth communications that would have been unnecessary were the first missive unambiguous and to-the-point.
- Read what others write – before replying. While it would be nice to believe that people will place the most important information at the very beginning, often times the key facts are buried in the closing paragraphs. What you are about to ask may already have been covered.
- Don’t send mixed messages. Email messages should stick to one topic. Writing about the mid-year accounting review and adding in a question about a dinner meeting at the end is not only inappropriate, but it’s likely the question will be overlooked.
- Keep messages short and to the point. My informal study of the matter has shown that many email recipients don’t read past the third sentence.
- Value your colleagues’ time as if it were your own. If a response to an email is not immediately forthcoming, don’t pick up the phone or send an instant message saying, “Did you get my email?”
- Finally, avoid the temptation to chime in unnecessarily with a one-word email such as “Great!” or “Thanks!” These messages only add to inbox clutter.
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