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Information Overload

Why might 20% of payroll be soaked up by inefficient use of email and interruptions?

by Ian Price

Information overload is the general term used to describe the overwhelming volumes of email we receive; constant electronic interruptions we experience as a result of the burgeoning number of communication channels; and the 24:7 “always on” lifestyle driven by the growth of BlackBerrys and other smartphones.  There is a groundswell of comment, news coverage and debate on information overload as a cause of stress.

In a 2008 BBC Money Programme Special titled “Email is ruining my life”, work psychology expert Cary Cooper identified email as “one of the greatest stressors” of modern working life.  In the last two decades, employees have experienced a perfect storm of innovation in communications technology, in addition to an explosion in the number of channels.  This means that we can contact, and be contacted, just about anywhere at any time.  Something which France Telecom CFO, Gervais Pellissier, confirmed in a September 2009 article for the Independent  “Today for people working in business, whatever the level, whether they are CEO of even first or second-rank level employees, they are always connected.”  France Telecom has experienced a spate of employee suicides over recent months, and has identified PDA’s (Personal Digital Assistants) as a driver of stress.

Just because employees – particularly those under 30 – have become accustomed to acquiring their information in much the same way as they might drink water from a fire-hose, it does not mean they have “adapted” to this new environment.  Research suggests that the opposite is the case – experiments conducted at the University of Sheffield show that frequent interruptions whilst attempting to perform a task cause a drop in IQ twice as great as the impact of smoking cannabis!

As one of the few UK-based members of the predominantly American Information Overload Research Group (IORG), I have been able to work with the latest research and practice in this area.  IORG President, Nathan Zeldes, has published a wealth of information from his time at Intel where he was tasked with quantifying the impact on effectiveness of information overload.  His analysis suggests that as much as 20% of an organisation’s payroll is soaked up by a combination of the ineffective use of email and the impact of electronic interruptions.

The issue at the heart of information overload is not the technology itself but the way in which we use it.  Its march is not altogether implacable but will, discipline and the support of senior management are needed to reverse the trend.  An organisation needs to follow 3 key steps:

  • Reach a collective understanding of the basic psychological drivers that cause us to use the technology in the way we do
  • Establish and enforce a code of behaviour around the use of technology
  • Train, support and advise individuals on how to manage sources of information within their direct control

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