NZ: Please tell us a little about yourself. How and when did you become engaged in the battle against Information Overload?
ME: I am a full-time business technology professional for a large multi-national pharmaceutical corporation. I am also an Adjunct Professor in the MBA programs for several Universities. I hold an undergraduate degree (BS) in Computer Science, a graduate degree (MBA) in Information Technology, and a Doctorate (DBA) in Business.
I have worked with Email from its infancy as a simple communication tool utilized across mainframe computers. I became especially interested in the use of communication tools and technologies from my time working in large corporations and observing how Email continued to expand in its scope and complexity. I noticed that many users had very limited skills in how to manage this critical tool.
For my Doctoral dissertation, I performed research on the intersection of Email processing skills, Email Overload, and technology training on knowledge workers. I found a combination of training, corporate norms, and behavioral skills were the key to improving Email skills and reducing Email Overload.
NZ: Are the best approaches to resolve Information Overload found through technology, behavior, or other factors?
ME: Research has shown that you should work to address Email and Information use (and abuse) at three different levels: Organizational (corporate norms and standards for communication), Technological (improving Email skills, triage processing approaches, and media competencies), and Behavioral (eliminating distractions, improving structure and syntax, reducing unnecessary messaging). These three dimensions form a “three legged stool” that provides the foundational skills to be better at managing information and communication.
NZ: Everyone talks about the “negatives” of information overload, but aren’t there some “positives” as well?
ME: One of the “positives” of information overload is that due to the sheer volume of information now available, as well as the new tools and systems to analyze that data, we can find answers to problems that in the past were very difficult to answer. Advances in data mining, big data and data visualization in conjunction with massive data stores are enabling great advances in numerous industries. For example, the compilation and analysis of the human genome data (our DNA) is being used by medical research to find genetic markers for diseases and potential treatment.
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?
ME: Artificial Intelligence will play a growing role in information management and retrieval. Significant advances in information processing AI are being made in areas such as self-driving car technologies, customer service with automated on-line help systems, and ever-increasing capabilities in robotic manufacturing. AI technologies will allow these systems to process more data, make faster and more accurate decisions, and reduce error rates compared to human interaction.
Although there are still areas where humans excel, especially in areas involving creativity, empathy, and design, AI systems will begin to enter more and more aspects of our world and be able to sift through huge amounts of data to discern patterns and trends that are not discernable to the human mind.
NZ: Can you share with our readers one or two “best practices” they can adopt to become happier and more productive?
ME: I recommend to everyone three “best practices”:
Turn off notifications and distractions!
Unless you are in some sort of critical role, I would like to suggest that 99% of the notifications and alerts for your Email, phone and associated Apps be eliminated. The constant connections and media interruptions have a huge negative impact on personal happiness and productivity.
Implement Time-Bound, Focused Work Sessions
I am a big proponent of allocating only a specific amount of time to an activity. The “Pomodoro technique” is a fairly popular approach, since it mixes focused work sessions with “non-work breaks”.
A key piece of this approach is to eliminate all distractions and truly focus on one task. I have found that meditation and mindfulness exercises can be helpful to this approach. This takes effort and practice, but if you work at it, you can learn to really “get in the zone”, and true productivity and creativity will flourish. There are a number of utilities that can help you with this, but you can also achieve the benefit by simply using a timer and shutting off your phone, email, and browser!
Pair the Right Communication Tool with the Right Communication Need
Email is a great tool, but it is not always the best for every situation. Alternate media (wikis, blogs, IMs, news feeds, etc.) can play an important part in reducing Information Overload and improving communication. A huge amount of information overload can be eliminated by knowing when to make a phone call, hold a webex, or get people together in a meeting or video conference instead of using Email.
NZ: What do you see in the future of electronic communications? Will overload just continue to grow? Or will there be a major change that will make today’s email obsolete?
ME: New collaborative environments have recently had a strong focus and growth, with tools such as Slack and Google Hangouts. Some companies (such as Atos) have worked to almost completely eliminate Email. But in some ways, many of these collaborative environments just replace one overloaded media (Email) with another.
As technologies continue to advance, new communication methods and channels will be developed. For example, items such as Google Glass are likely to return at some point in the future, and with a vengeance, once the technology and applications grow in maturity. And further in the future, I see the growth of bio-integrated devices (implanted/embedded devices in our bodies), where we will be able to “see” and “hear” information sources directly through our own senses without even requiring external devices.
NZ: Do you see a difference in the manifestations and solutions of IO in the younger millennial generation?
ME: Millennials appear to be more comfortable with instant messaging channels compared to the traditional use of Email. They also make higher use of acronyms in messages, and overall communicate with less formality. But whereas instant and casual types of communication may be fine at the social level, they become a major challenge for business. Companies face legal and liability issues around areas such as the need for data retention, misunderstandings, and even potential harassment/work environment claims due to poorly worded/misunderstood messages.
Companies have new challenges in learning to balance all the various communication channels with corporate liability concerns, and some millennials may need to learn that some of their current communication methods may not always be acceptable in certain corporate environments. This creates a major training challenge for firms.
NZ: Please share any additional thoughts you have on these matters.
ME: I am still a big proponent of technology and think it can be a great enabler for our work and lives. But we shouldn’t necessarily blame the media as the source of our issues. Rather, we need to focus our efforts on teaching individuals and organizations how to use the right type of media for the right types of situations. This includes not only technology training in how to use our tools and systems effectively, but also organizational training in how to use the tools appropriately within our businesses, and behavioral training in how to use the tools efficiently, such as avoiding distractions and improving the quality of our communications. We need to invest the personal and organizational resources in targeted training to improve knowledge, skills, and fluency of individuals and groups across all available media types.
To quote the famous Pogo cartoon, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”