Is Managing Information Overload Just Self-Discipline? No – Some People Can Actually Do Something Real About It

April 17, 2008 at 4:26 pm | Posted in Attention Management | 2 Comments

An article in yesterday’s WSJ by Lee Gomes (4/16/08, page B1, You Can Enjoy a Book On a Mere Cellphone; (Hit Spacebar Now)) has a tidy summary of a statement that tends to make me cringe:

The biggest drawback to the experience involves the sheer proximity of the Internet and the constant temptation it provides for the aforementioned thumb to wander away from the realm of timeless literary art toward a cheap, quick-information fix in the form of email or blogs. This is one of the cultural problems of our time and I don’t have much to offer in the way of solutions, save to nag everyone about steely self-discipline.

While Mr. Gomes is referring specifically to the itch to check email or blogs, I’ve seen the entire attention management issue framed this way as well: that information overload and info-stress are like the weather in that everyone likes to talk about it but no one ever does anything about it.  Why waste much time talking about the dangers of our always-on, go-go culture if all you can do about it is nag people to buckle down and change their behavior?

I can understand that the average information worker feels that dealing with the overabundance and addictive nature of information (just as with food) is a matter of self-discipline.  But there are a handful of people in any organization that can take action to impact the productivity and stress of hundreds (sometimes thousands) of information workers.  I’m talking about CxOs and the IT owners, stakeholders, and champions of attentional technologies.  Cornering the folks in the corner office about Information Overload can pay dividends.

Enterprise Attention Management (EAM) pulls together the various puzzle pieces involved in the information overload issue and lays them out in a conceptual architecture that provides a view (a cross-section really) of the myriad technologies and processes involved.  Once laid out in this fashion, EAM can be applied to a specific organization’s situation.  For a demo of how this works, see my entry that applies the EAM to personal attention management and then think about doing that for the organization as a whole.

If you’re one of that handful of people I mentioned, you can take real action – actually do something about information overload for scores of people in your organization.  For example, if you’re the owner of the e-mail system, you can enable filtering rules, teach people how to use them, or place them on your list of evaluation points for an email product evaluation as your situation warrants.  If you’re a CEO or head of a large division you can lead by example in how you send out and accept communications (e.g., using appropriate channels, not accepting electronic interruptions during meetings, demanding full attention for short periods of focused collaboration).  If you’re in a position to roll out RSS technology you can accelerate its entry into the organization.  These are just a few examples.  Each is only a small piece of the puzzle, which is why the EAM conceptual architecture is important for laying out how all of these pieces interconnect.  And how they apply to each organization is different.  But only when they are laid out in the context of attention management can strategic direction become evident.

(Note: This is a cross-posting from the Collaboration and Content Strategies blog)


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  1. Nah. Sorry, not buying it. Despite investing a modest sum in one of the three Enterprise RSS vendors, I’m not buying that it is going to solve information overload… in fact, it’s likely to exacerbate the problem.

    And I’m not the only one that E-RSS has been overreaching. I had an interesting conversation with one of the junior partners of the lead VC firm on the issue (keep in mind, he was a respected enterprise architect at one point in his career). He observed that administrating feeds, enhanced security, providing a new channel for notifications, etc… were all valid value propositions of E-RSS. But his take on the whole issues of solving information overload through heuristics, and Enterprise Attention Management, etc… was that it a great promise on the surface, but would be realized any time soon.

    Also… there’s a trend afoot to simply “unplug.” As famed weblogger Robert Scoble recently asked, “What are your goals? Is it to have more followers on Twitter? Or is it to get something done today?” One commenter to Scoble’s post (entitled “Not productive enough? Turn off the Internet”) called the phenomenon “attention thieves.”

    Hat tip to Paul Chaney for noting the trend in his post “Social media pied-pipers disconnecting from the net.” He also notes that Doc Searls is giving up on blogging and Hugh McLeod is deleting his twitter account.

    To be clear, I still believe that E-RSS and social media have a valid and quantifiable value proposition… but we need to get real about solving the problem of information overload. To overreach in such a nascent arena is to hurt something that we’re all vested in.

    And finally, not to get to far afield, but I think we’re also unintentionally diverting attention away from something that holds great strategic business value: mapping the hidden networks of tacit knowledge workers. It’s equally as sexy – from a business value standpoint and can be quickly codified through the repurposing of existing analytics/reporting packages.

  2. […] I have also written in opposition to the nihilism that Mr. Davenport presents here and that is frequent in the hand-wringing treatises of the […]

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