What to Do The Day After Information Overload Awareness Day

August 13, 2009 at 8:45 am | Posted in Attention Management, Culture, etiquette, Information Work, interruption science | 2 Comments

So, you’ve survived Information Overload Awareness Day.  Your eyes were opened to the stress, poor decision making, and cold hard cash being sacrificed on the altar of our always-on, always-connected, go-go-go culture.  Now what do you do?

Well, first I’d recommend coming down off the mountain a little bit and taking a view of the issue from the ground.  Consider that the proliferation of information and communication channels should not be seen entirely in the negative (the “overload” problem).  The implication is that if you don’t feel the problem, someone must not have shaken you hard enough with studies on stress, the difficulty of finding things, or put a big enough number on the cost. 

Some exaggeration (or, to be more accurate, exclusive focusing on the negative) may be useful to shake people awake and scare them straight.  But there’s a risk they will become hysterical or stare into space.  After all, once one can see the information apocalypse is neigh, one has to figure out what to do about it. Those who do little gain only a sense of futility; they can see what is happening but do nothing about it.  While those who do too much risk vast unintended consequences.  Social bonds and efficiency suffer when people behave selfishly to shield themselves from interruptions that are unnecessary (to them).  Short lived attempts to change etiquette result in long-term feelings of bullying and reduce the effectiveness of future attempts.  Once-a-week time-outs (of e-mail, meetings) just shift the burden to other days while avoiding a root cause of the inefficiency: messages maintaining their channel without being pulled forward or pushed back as needed.  

I believe that an organization-wide, systemic, balanced approach that aims to improve efficiency for all workers is preferable to defining the situation in negative terms which start a war in response that can have vast unintended consequences. You can do take a balanced view by starting to think about:

  • A model (enterprise attention management) to organize, elicit (as an intuition pump), and communicate potential improvements that can increase the efficiency of a large number of workers (a systemic fix) rather than just personal tips on how any one person interested can help themselves
  • Who are the couple of people in your organization that can have a positive impact on the attention management abilities of everyone in the company?  What can executives and owners of communication systems do that is more than what any one individual worker can do?  
  • “Closed loop” rather than selfish view of interruptions.  Consider each interruption as an interaction between the interrupter and those interrupted and determining, as a whole, if it was useful to the organization. So what is a real interruption in your business?  What is “interrupted” versus “distracted” and what is an “unnecessary” interruption (does the person doing the interruption ever think their interruption is unnecessary and if not, who gets to judge)?
  • How social contracts and organizational structure influence interruptions and information flows in ways that aren’t captured in overload calculations and may result in unintended consequences if disrupted
  • How technology can help.  Technology is not the answer, but it’s certainly a lot of the problem and, accordingly, can be a participant in an improvement approach.  With a model in place, attentional capabilities of tools can be enumerated and used to their fullest extent to address known problems
  • Teachable moments.  Much of the information overload is due to etiquette and culture, but browbeating people to change their ways has little effect.  It’s been said that you can’t force changes in culture, but yet there are certainly cases where culture has been drastically changed.  Part of the answer lies in exploiting teachable moments to make positive changes in counterproductive communication and information management behaviors
  • Pacing.  Try to get a realistic idea of how much improvement you can actually target.  Even if 28% of workers’ days are wasted, 0% isn’t the proper target.  Step back and think about what the real target should be to get a realistic picture of potential cost savings. By all means, use the Basex number as an example of one extreme way of estimating it, but follow up by talking about the importance of determining a realistic goal for improvement.  Once you get executives to buy into a strategy based upon dollar savings rather than quality and speed of decision making and employee retention, you’ll be expected to prove how much you’ve saved in hard dollars later. Don’t use a sum of personal observations (rather than closed-loop), depend on colloquial and self-determined definitions, or build overall angst into your number

So, it’s a good thing if IOAD created an awareness that wasn’t there.  But the real value comes now – the day after – when organizations struggle with how to approach something described as such an enormous problem with tendrils in sociology, psychology, physiology, technology, and business.  My recommendation is to leave the negative framing (“overload”, “problem”) and self-helpy, guru-talk aside.  Now is the time to recast the issue in terms of systemic efficiency that can be analyzed with a conceptual model and target improvements that are both reasonable and achievable.

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



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  1. […] are suffering for this loss.  I dislike the colloquial term “information overload” (see “What to Do The Day After Information Overload Awareness Day”), but that term is applicable here to describe the angst created when a human attention […]

  2. […] level of efficiency becomes an expectation for performance.  Executives start thinking about enterprise-wide approaches instead of just individual ones.  And vendors start noticing and making such features more […]

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