It's vital to deal with information overload

Author of 'Ubiquitous email' article talks to Matt Hamblen

Massachusetts Institute of Technology Deputy Dean JoAnne Yates is co-author of an upcoming article on information overload called "Ubiquitous Email: Individual Experiences and Organizational Consequences of BlackBerry Use".

Is there much academic research on the issue of information overload?

A doctoral student at MIT Sloan, Melissa Mazmanian, has done research on this, not yet published. She is working on a co-authored article with Wanda Orlikowski, a professor of IT at Sloan, and me on the use of BlackBerry devices by about 30 workers in one financial services firm. The BlackBerry tends to be seen by them as a way of reducing stress in the present because it is better to get alerts on a BlackBerry than to come back to a computer later and find there's a disaster. But the other side is the the unintended side-effect of putting more stress on them in the longer term, because they have so little downtime. They all complained about how they are never away from it. So, while they loved their BlackBerries, they paid a price in long-term stress.

Have you seen any thoughtful responses to this problem?

Sometimes blogging and IM have been forbidden by managers, or companies are hesitant to use such approaches. Some organisations adopt wikis so everyone sees everything going on, but that's actually a very hard transition to make properly. That approach requires changes in behaviours in the entire team, but people don't always take the time for training or know what is expected of them.

Wanda Orlikowski's research shows there is a strong social component to all of this. Communications norms matter, not just the technology and software tools side and not just the individual cognitive side.

How do you change group norms to deal with information overload?

If you are on a team of workers, you have to set expectations about response times, but most of the time, those expectations go unarticulated. Everybody has a general sense of what's expected, but to change something, you have to raise expectations to an explicit level and you have to consider whether they can or should be changed. You cannot deal with the issue until you make it explicit; otherwise, you get this spiral of expectations that is happening implicitly, which leads some to this feeling of "always being on".

Within your workgroup, you need to decide, "Do we want to use this method to communicate, or do we not want to take it on?".

Do you have any specific examples?

If you have a team of people, email seems to be the universal default. So if you add wikis, or blogs or social networking, then different people will want different technologies. You wouldn't want everybody to go to every possible medium; you do have to have some kind of agreement on what will be the default line of communication.

On an individual level, you need to reach an agreement on what you are going to commit to checking in on. If you use a wiki for project communications, you might want to say that members check that wiki twice a day, or with email, that everyone checks in once each morning.

These ideas sound good for collegial teams, but what about in hierarchies, where there's a boss in charge?

Younger workers have to learn what the bosses want, and that's a reality of the workplace. The boss needs to make procedures explicit, such as, "I expect you to check email once a day by x time and respond to anything I send you". But that's not always done when new people come aboard.

If you are a boss, you can ask a worker to report to you in a certain way too. I know someone who got emails from a subordinate every 15 minutes. The manager finally told the worker, "Look, I can't work with this stream of little questions coming in. When you really know what your question is, write me a single email." By being explicit, it got easier to manage.

Is information overload hurting organisations?

I can't give examples of where it is hurting the bottom line, but I know of many examples where it hurts individuals. We interviewed spouses of the workers at the financial services firm, and some of their comments were amazing. A lot of them really hated their spouses' use of the BlackBerry. It does cause a lot of tension. We also found that several of those workers were answering their BlackBerries in the bathroom, hiding it from the spouse where they would not be seen.

So, are organisations not doing enough to address the way the staff typically handles information?

Our society's take on this problem, reflected in the term "CrackBerry" and related addiction rhetoric, is that the problem happens at an individual level, which ignores the social problem. In general, organisations keep waiting for technology to solve the information overload problem, but if every worker makes individual decisions on how to solve the overload problem, you are fragmenting the communications world even more. Technology is part of the solution, but only a part. It's also how we use the technology, on an individual and a social level.

Do you have any personal tricks?

For me, my mental discipline each day is that I never leave my computer at night until I have email down to one screen of email in my in-box. That happens to be what works for me. But sometimes I end up answering the lower-priority items just to get them out of there. Also, I don't like long periods on the phone, so I push people into the email stream.

Still, others prefer the other ways. Some people answer email for one hour in the morning and one hour in the afternoon only, and that might work for some at MIT who are academics and are researching and teaching.

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Tags managementubiquitous emailJoAnne Yatesinformation overload

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