Information overload is an excuse

One of the things we talk about extensively in Social Business is we are asking everyone to contribute and collaborate. This will ultimately generate a lot of content. We seem to think since the amount of content is increasing that we are going to be exposed to Information Overload. The reality is we will, but only because most of us lack the discipline to focus our attention on what matters and to filter everything else out. Only part of this is a technology issue, most of it is about getting our arms around and managing our attention.

More and more studies are indicating that despite what we may believe (or what today’s teens try to tell us), our brains suck at multi-tasking. Additionally, this constant switching influenced by multiple stimuli is actually making us less productive. Back in 2009, Kathleen Culver and I talked about the Dark Side of Enterprise 2.0 at the Enterprise 2.0 conference in San Francisco. In this talk, Kathleen laid out that attention is a limited resource and is as valuable as time and money.

I call out this because already people are thinking this is a tools problem, but in actuality the best tools in the world will have a difficult time keeping up with how quickly our priorities can change in our daily business/personal lives. For example, Your boss calls you and says there is a problem that needs to be taken care of right away. Because this was a direct request, you drop everything you are doing and focus on resolving the problem. During this time your tools are providing you information that is in your normal workflow. During this time of crisis, this isn’t valuable information; it’s noise. If we are disciplined, we shut down all the tools that are causing us to lose focus on the immediate goals, but often this only solves part of the problem. We are still bombarded with alerts either on our phones, via e-mail or perhaps Instant Messages. Most of us are not disciplined, and instead we try to ignore all the distractions, often with marginal success.

Why do we have such a hard time with this? Some of it is actually a social problem. Consumer applications like Facebook have conditioned us that there are potential social impacts of “un-following” someone. This consequence generally makes it easy to follow and, awkward at best, to un-follow. This social awkwardness seems to have made the leap into our business lives and actually makes it harder to filter out the noise.

In companies one of the biggest activities is the “project”. Most projects have a start and and end. When a project is over, the work is complete, the team disbands,and in some cases, you may never interact with some of the people ever again, yet we don’t take the time to go and un-follow them and instead try to ignore the alerts, crying “foul” and “information overload”.

We are all responsible for managing our attention. The amount of information we are confronting will continue to increase we have no control over that. We need to educate co-workers that it’s OK to un-follow and that Social Business is not a popularity contest. We need to tell vendors that the tools need to improve and make adjusting information flow quickly, easier. In the end, it is still up to us to be self-disciplined to ensure we are properly managing our attention to avoid information overload.

What are your techniques for managing your attention?

Image courtesy of: TZA

2 thoughts on “Information overload is an excuse

  1. Great post and salient points Greg. A few thoughts and forgive the my verbosity, as Mark Twain said, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter…” :

    In my limited experience, working with various companies and the individuals within them, “information overload” is one of the first rationals people give for why they can’t or won’t use the new tool being introduced. “I don’t have enough time”… “I’m already drowning in my inbox”…”I dont’ need yet another tool to check”…. all miss the entire objective of the tool. These tools are designed to both compliment existing tools, and also be a substitute for areas those tools are lacking. Rather than simply be “one more thing,” E 2.0 tools, especially ESNs can drastically improve existing processes, make information and expertise easier to find, and improve efficiency. The critical component is properly educating users about how these tools can be integrated into existing business processes to drive clear business objectives, i.e. make their lives easier! With this framework, they no longer become “one more thing to do” and quickly become mission critical resources that improve upon existing tools. With existing tools being like a hammer, these new tools are like a nail gun, much more efficient and effective for many of the same things, but not an exact substitute (at least not yet). Do you think this analogy works? What do you think are the key ways to combat the “information overload” default “excuse”?

    Finally, the other fascinating point that you bring up, is the impact on someone’s “social capital” for unfollowing within Facebook, and how that has translated over to the enterprise. I definitely see this happening, and especially in highly political corporate cultures, having the most followers, likes, or other status symbols can be contentious. However, the aim must always remain, within the business setting, on what helps reach the objectives. With Facebook, the “objectives” are set by you, so you get to decide whether you’re willing to take the risk to “ignore” [notice that Facebook changed this from “reject” to make it easier] the invite from that random person you met once, or you want to expand your “network” and add them as a “friend.” Unlike the Showtime Rotisserie, where you can “set it and forget it,” users will gain the most value by constantly adjusting their following to reflect the changing business environment. Within business, you must constantly be assessing the signal vs. noise ratio and adjust your following accordingly…unlike with Facebook, at least you can say, “my boss made me do it.” 😉

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