Information Overload in a global corporation: interview with Mooly Eden

Information Overload in a global corporation: interview with Mooly Eden

Interview with Mooly Eden, Chairman of the executive committee University of Haifa, formerly Senior vice president Intel Corporation. 

NZ: Please tell us a little about yourself and your career, notably at Intel

ME: I am currently the Chairman of the University of Haifa’s Executive Committee. Before that I worked for 33 years at Intel Corporation in multiple roles in manufacturing and design, most recently as senior vice president and general manager of the PC Client Group (PCCG).  In that position I managed a group of hundreds of people, and a budget of US $32B.

NZ: What is your take on information overload in the workplace?

ME: In an ideal world 80% of the information that reached me via email should have never been sent to me, so my problem is to sort what part of the incoming flow I should attend to. The “Importance” flag is there in the email client, but nobody uses it; and the only useful hint we have is the sender’s name and subject.

Email has changed – in the 90’s it had enabled tremendous productivity, and now it is one of our worst productivity killers. In any global organization at least one hour a day is going to processing emails there is no need to read. That’s like an eighth of our human resource, 12.5% of one’s workforce – it’s hard to understand why we don’t fight this problem!

NZ: How did information overload (from email, social media and other channels) impact your work at Intel?

ME: At Intel I was getting over 100 messages a day. Actually, middle managers would get more; being senior, people used to think twice before mailing me. This adds to the problem, because senior managers hurt less, so they are not always aware of the extent of the problem.

I was spending an hour a day on useless email and at least two more hours on useful messages – but the latter are OK, they were part of my job. My work consisted of updated meetings, brainstorming, one-on-ones, and management via email. For a chip designer, however, the emails pose a severe problem.

I haven’t seen a social media overload problem in my organization. These tools were mainly used for ad hoc messaging like “Meet me at the cafeteria”, not for serious work.

NZ: What is your personal strategy for coping with the overload?

ME: I’ve made a decision to abandon Push mode: I pull mail to my handheld when I want to, and I read it when I want to, without any alerts to announce new mails. This has improved my communication because I don’t reply to everything in a hurry, in real time.

I unsubscribe from any group, for example a WhatsApp group that abuses my attention.

I’ve requested senders in my group at Intel to specify in the subject whether the message contains an action item for me, or an important update, or something they’ve done that they’re proud of and want me to know. I also expect messages to contain a short “executive summary” in the body– The details can go in an attachment or follow on mail pages. The summary should be short enough to read without scrolling, just a few lines; and should help me decide whether to open the attachment.

NZ: Have you led action to reduce the overload within the groups you’ve managed? If so, what was it, and what were the outcomes?

ME: I’ve made a point to teach my subordinates email etiquette – for instance I’d return to sender unnecessary messages, not as a reprimand but as a way to coach them in effective behavior.

While we’re on the subject, I also mandated a reduction of 10% in meeting count – meetings are also a huge time sink – and followed up to ensure people did this.

NZ: What solutions or changes are missing that would solve the problem? What tools would you love to see developed?

ME: Actually, I caution not to go for solutions that are only technological. A key ingredient must be to get senders to respect my time. Think twice before hitting Send! And this is a component of the organizational culture.

I propose we have indicators for people’s mailing effectiveness: how many messages each employee sends and receives, and so on. We could set targets and identify abusers that are harming others around them by ineffective practices; and we could analyze the organization’s interactions by departments, grade levels, etc., and drive for improvement.

As for meetings – I expect future holography could reduce the need for face-to-face meetings, and the travel they impose. We humans are evolved to interact when seeing each other, and video conferencing is at best a partial solution – an advanced holographic setup could be much better. I see technological opportunities for reducing bandwidth in such technology by creating lifelike avatars that reproduce a person’s movements and speech.

As to email features I miss: long ago we had a counter for messages in a thread: if you were the sixth to reply, the subject would start with RE[6]: … and so by the time it got to RE[4] you’d just pick up the phone. This feature is no longer there.

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: AI is a great way to deal with the information overload problem. If an AI tool can observe which messages I reply to instantly, which messages I delete, which I leave forever without handling, and use machine learning to identify patterns, it would be able to generalize and help me focus on what is important. I expect such tools would find clustering based on content, sender, subject, and message length. So this could be the basis of effective personal assistant software that would sort the inbox for us.

NZ: Can you share with our readers one related “best practice” they can adopt to become happier and more productive?

ME: In my own emails, I always put action items at the very start of the message, to help recipients figure out what’s what. I recommend doing this if you want people to take the action you require and stay productive in the process.

 

Nathan Zeldes
Nathan Zeldes

Nathan Zeldes is a globally recognized thought leader in the search for improved knowledge worker productivity. After a 26 year career as a manager and principal engineer at Intel Corporation, he now helps organizations solve core problems at the intersection of information technology and human behavior.

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