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Information Age leads to information overload

FOCUS Extra

 

Futurist Alvin Toffler predicted “Information Overload,” not only coining a neat term that you can use at parties, but also painting a bleak picture of a society so bogged down in data that it can no longer function in a civilized manner (implying that humankind once so behaved).

I doubt that many would argue whether his prediction is coming true. But where Al’s prediction breaks down is the impact of such data on society: he envisioned that people would actually try to use that information, and faced with the enormity of the task would react by waging war with small island nations, or by neglecting the appearance of their lawns. With wonderfully human irony, all that data — for the most part — is being thrown up on a shelf and never looked at, or just plain thrown away.

But what I am here to predict is a more serious and tangible problem than information overload. A problem with the level of seriousness that would be associated with Richard Simmons being allowed to have a prime time television series. For this problem I would like to coin the term “Communications Overload.”

Okay, it’s not that far off from information overload, especially insofar as communication is nothing more than the distribution of information. But considering that we are not yet waging war with small island nations because we can’t get to all the data we’ve created, I think communications overload a much more pressing and tangible issue.

I now have four personal phone numbers to keep track of, counting just the ones that I pay for. If I extend that list to include the phone numbers of places that I spend significant amounts of time at — work, church, in line at the airport — the number can easily double. I have voice mail boxes on most of those numbers. I have somewhere between five and seven e-mail addresses. I also have instant messaging (IM), which is an Internet-based chat where you have a group of “virtual friends,” which is basically my coworkers plus my wife. And I tend to think of myself as quite normal.

So here is how a typical day at the office starts out. After cranking up my notebook, I begin to go through anywhere from 30 to 50 e-mail messages that I have received overnight. Somewhere around the fourth e-mail, one of my virtual coworkers opens up an IM dialog, and before I’ve gotten to the tenth e-mail, I’ve opened up a couple more. Somewhere around e-mail No. 15 my phone rings, so I am simultaneously reading an e-mail, chatting with two or three people on IM and talking on the phone.

During all of this, more e-mail messages come in. This cycle continues, and by the time I get to the end of the e-mail list, it is time to go home.

Two things should be obvious here: that my schedule in the office is generally governed by e-mail, and that all I am doing is talking about work — not getting any work actually done, unless of course that is my job (which I guess it is). Either that or I go home way too early (which is not the case as my wife will attest).

In the midst of this grueling work someone occasionally asks me, “How’s it going?,” to which I generally respond that I am overcommunicating, another phrase I would like to coin.

According to my own personal definition (you get to do that when you coin a phrase), overcommunicating occurs when the action of information delivery hinders the accomplishment of required goals. And if I had to guess, it’s beginning to mean losses in efficiency, perhaps to the tune of billions of dollars.

The problem is getting worse.

MIT’s Michael L. Dertouzos predicts that by 2008, we will be receiving about a thousand e-mails a day. International Data Corporation estimates today’s regular Internet users to number around 200 million. This means that there are 200 million people who can instantly communicate with one another. And thousands of new users continue to be added to the Internet daily.

So what do you do to keep effective and avoid communications overload?

In “Culture.com: Building Corporate Culture in the Connected Workplace,” authors Neuhauser, Bender and Stromberg offer a strategy that includes controlling e-mail and taking advantage of the inevitable (meaning work with it, don’t fight it).

The reason that I have several e-mail addresses is so that I have alternate e-mail addresses to give out. I have the critical e-mail, then I have the e-mail that I get to when I can. A practice, I am proud to say, that I had applied long before I read it in their fine book.

Their strategy goes further, detailing how to take advantage of these new media of communications. In the past, business communications has been an exercise in pushing information from management downward, which is certainly made more effective with today’s technology. “Culture.com” suggests that you adopt more of a pull practice, encouraging the entire organization to proactively gather critical information, which is best exemplified in a company intranet site. Their strategy also calls for your organization to develop collaboration skills which match today’s technology, turning information hoarders into sharers.

To the “Culture.com” strategies, I add my own. Take advantage of “junk” and “bulk” mail features on your e-mail system — these features automatically route known junk e-mail to predetermined folders that you can ignore or check at your leisure. On days that you must truly accomplish something, stay at home and work and stay away from e-mail, chat and the phones. Above all, gently remind everyone that sends you e-mail or instant messages that sometimes you just can’t possibly get back immediately — but try your best to get back as quickly as you can.

And now if you’ll excuse me, I must run and check my e-mail. It’s getting dark out.

Chuck Ros is the chief technology officer for SolutionData Inc. in Gulfport.

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