NZ: Please tell us a little about yourself. What is it you do? How would you define the main passion that drives your work?
MS: I have a master’s in physical chemistry and one in psychology, so I am positioned at the interface between technology and behavior; my PhD research directly addressed this interface.
I’ve been working on my own for 30 years and was a contractor to the British government some 25 years ago when the volume of email in the public sector increased and increased – people discovered that they could cover their backside at the press of a key! I suggested to my peers in management to take action about this problem and started writing on the subject then. Ever since, I’ve been active in the IO field. What I love about my work is meeting people and hearing their organizational problems and helping them solve them.
What drives my passion is seeing so much time wasted by the misuse of email, as people put so much time into email and Social Media. There is much positive in these media but also a lot that is negative. The most depressing thing to see is millennials at a restaurant where they spend half the time with their phones instead of interacting with the people they are having dinner with!
NZ: Why do you think people send so much email, and suffer so much from it? Why don’t people just reduce the overall volume of messages to everyone’s benefit?
MS: My philosophy is that email is covering deeper organizational problems, especially in larger organizations. People send so much because they can, but there is another problem: we assume that we know how to use email like we assume we can drive a car. Yet from the hundreds of workshops I’ve run it amazes me how many things people don’t know about email processing. You have the culture of an organization that perpetuates sending lots of mail; you have technology; you have social media – and then there’s the fact that people don’t know how to use it all effectively.
NZ: Where is the IO domain headed in the next 15 years? Which solution directions seem the most promising, and which companies are likely to give us the next breakthrough?
MS: Email is going to remain. It is universal, and I see no sign of it abating. In fact, it will only get worse unless organizations do something to temper it. And the battle now includes Social media, adding to the distraction, which is why I like products like Knowmail that help you stay focused.
I see many organizations simply adding more channels, for example Facebook for Business. The result is merely more overload. We may see some social channels amalgamating, and I think products based on AI, like Knowmail, will help us sort out the priorities. I expect that over the next 15 years we’ll have the classic peak where it gets worse then drops to a sustainable level.
NZ: What role do you think AI methods will play in addressing the problem? What are the pros and cons of such methods in this context?
MS: AI has the ability to learn from the users, prioritize, and respond. But will we finally have a “Driverless Inbox”? I think not. In the field of medicine, say in surgery, the combination of an AI agent guiding machinery with a human supervising it works best. Vendors like Knowmail are exploring how to apply AI with human involvement. This interactive model is best; I don’t think AI working alone can replace it completely.
NZ: Do you see a difference in the manifestations and solutions of IO in the younger millennial generation and beyond?
MS: I don’t think the solutions will be different for Gen Y, but the millennials are growing up with these solutions, and will wonder how older generations ever did without them!
I think we should be very careful to make sure we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater when dealing with these millennials. While the millennials will take to the technology, there is much room for what I call reverse mentorship, particularly about things like Email Etiquette. The millennials may be all in favor of applying tools, such as AI, to save time, but the older generation may say, Yes, BUT… is that the right thing to do for our business? There is a big gap between the social and business uses of the technology, and millennials lack the basis for judging the difference. They may do things a boomer would never do! Bill Gates’s book “The speed of thought” advocates this reverse mentorship.
Millennials will not handle Information Overload better, because the brain won’t have changed. We can’t modify the brain, and it can still only deal with 1-2 priority things simultaneously. Knowmail helps here by assisting you with the priority you are working on, while keeping the other priority in the background.
NZ: Can you share with our readers one or two “best practices” they can adopt to become happier and more productive?
- The fundamental thing is Think before hitting Send. Ask yourself: why am I sending this message, what is the purpose, and have I communicated it clearly? Is there an alternative way to communicate?
- If you don’t have access to a product like Knowmail, then it is about prioritizing for yourself and using to best effect the filters built into your email technology. You can set filters to extract the urgent or high priority items and move the rest to folders somewhere. I do this to filter out non-essential messages like marketing emails into a side folder before they hit my inbox.
NZ: Please share any additional thoughts you have for our readers.
MS: I recommend people to join IORG, the Information Overload Research Group! You can subscribe to the IORG mailing list by going to “Sign Up for Updates”.