Coping With Infoglut

The ability to produce information is outstripping managers' ability to process it.
Joseph McCaffertySeptember 1, 1998

If it isn’t announced by a ring, beep, or flash, it’s delivered to your front desk by a person in a uniform; or spit out by a machine that looks like a printer, but takes phone calls; or transmitted to your PC, heralded perhaps by a little toot of arrival or even (if the IT manager has a bad sense of humor) the voice of Leonard Nimoy saying, “You’ve got mail, Captain.”

Welcome to the Age of Infoglut. Every day, managers are deluged by E-mails, faxes, snail mail, voice mail. If information is the currency of modern business, it is increasingly being exchanged in lower denominations, like so many pennies piling up on the dresser top. Just sorting everything out adds hours to a workweek–and stress to a psyche. One British psychologist claims to have identified a new mental disorder caused by too much information; he calls it Information Fatigue Syndrome.

Of course, companies thrive on information, and have encouraged the development of systems to produce, store, and analyze it. Enterprise software systems and data warehouses can now capture nearly every transaction in an organization, while an array of analytic tools enables end users to slice and dice data to their heart’s content. Performance-measurement systems present dashboards of the most pertinent gauges of corporate well-being.

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But while analyzing transactional data can be like sipping water from a fire hose, it’s the other stuff that wears on the nerves–the daily random assortment of messages, memos, announcements, advisories, surveys, sales pitches, and other flotsam and jetsam streaming through the office. The flow is not just tiresome, but potentially dangerous: buried in the pile of faxes under the daily specials for Joe’s Deli may be the details of an unsolicited bid for the company.

More than ever, financial managers need strategies for identifying and prioritizing information, while keeping the background noise to a dull roar.

E-Mail Binge

A recent study by Pitney Bowes, in Stamford, Connecticut, found that the average white- collar worker at a Fortune 1,000 company sends and receives an average of 190 messages a day, in a variety of electronic and paper formats. Even if you subtract the E-mails devoted to golf jokes, that’s a lot of messages.

“It has become completely overwhelming,” says Sheryl Battles, executive director of external affairs at Pitney Bowes, who worked on the study. “Trying to manage the volume of information is redefining productivity in the office as we know it. In a knowledge economy, the real goal is to get through all the messages.” The infoglut has especially affected senior-level executives, adds Battles.

E-mail is a primary culprit. In the past, lower-level workers would never have dreamed of interrupting the CFO with mundane questions, such as whether hotel movies can be expensed. Today, however, those workers have no problem asking such questions via E-mail, which is perceived to be less intrusive, says Battles.

(It should be noted that some executives have turned E-mail to their advantage, finding in the medium a new and expedient way of running a business. Microsoft CEO Bill Gates, for instance, reportedly spends hours a day reading and sending E-mail.)

The study also identified something Pitney Bowes calls messaging meltdown. That’s when people try to reinforce their messages with other messages, exacerbating the infoglut. For example, they might leave you a voice-mail message that they are faxing a report. In addition, they might also send the report via E-mail. Then, they might make a follow-up phone call to make sure you received the fax and the E-mail.

The danger is that when recipients get overwhelmed, they may develop “communication anxiety” and stop checking their messages, says Battles. “People begin to rebel in small ways,” she says. Battles knows executives who allow the batteries in their cell phones to run down–perhaps a subconscious way of trying to regain some peace of mind.

A Day In The Life Of An Info-Junkie

Arlen Henock didn’t need a survey to find out which way the data is flowing. “There has been a significant increase over the last few years in the information that flows through my office,” says Henock, vice president, controller, and chief tax counsel at Pitney Bowes. He says that dealing with the flow has crept into his personal time. “Each night I take home my faxes and other paperwork,” says Henock, “and after I put my kids to bed, I nestle up with my paperwork and read through it all.”

During a typical workday, Henock is a self- admitted information junkie. He gets up at 6:00 a.m. and, over breakfast, finishes reading any paperwork left over from the night before. On the way to work he checks his voice mail with his car cell phone and responds to any messages that need immediate attention. “Although I check my voice mail before I leave for home [typically at 7:30 p.m.], there are usually new messages in the morning,” he says. Europe, after all, has been up for hours.

At work, before the first meetings start, Henock reads the front page of the Wall Street Journal, then scans the index of companies to see if Pitney Bowes is mentioned in any articles. He then reads through his E-mail. A screen saver connected to the Internet automatically brings up articles on competitors, stock quotes, and scores from his favorite baseball and basketball teams (Yankees and Knicks). His PC also has access to information services like Lexis/Nexis, Dow Jones, and Bloomberg. “I have a law background, so I’m used to doing lots of keyword searches,” he says.

Then there are the phone calls, mail, and magazines to comb through. “I don’t feel like I have enough time to read everything I want to,” he says. Henock flips through Business Week, Fortune, Forbes, and, of course, CFO, marking articles he’ll read in his spare time on the weekend.

“Sometimes it can be frustrating,” admits Henock. “I spend a lot more time seeking out what is important in all of this.”

Filtering Skills

Pat Shannon, controller of Atlanta-based Bell South Corp., is similarly inundated by information. Every day he receives more than 50 E-mails and dozens of voice-mail messages, as well as internal reports, periodicals, and faxes. “It’s a never-ending struggle to get through all the data,” he says. “You have to remember that your job is to help run the company, not to assimilate data. I could read E-mails all day long.”

A perverse ramification of the information glut is that people feel compelled to continue gathering data. “Increasingly, it is a critical skill to know when you have enough,” says Shannon. Part of the problem lies in the explosion of data available on the World Wide Web. Because documents can be retrieved from the Web so easily, there is a tendency to download more, not less. “A search for information can elicit so much data that it’s hard to condense it down to what’s meaningful,” says Bruce Tomlinson, vice president of innovation and internal audit at Phillips Consumer Electronics, in Atlanta.

Time spent in gathering information can crowd out time needed to assimilate information, says David Shenk, author of the book Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut (HarperCollins, 1997). “There is a difference between information and knowledge,” says Shenk. The greater the mass of material, the greater the tendency to keep it at a distance. Bell South’s Shannon is aware of the problem. “We get monthly operations reports; that’s obviously something that requires some thoughtful time,” he says.

Lines Of Defense

The first and maybe strongest line of defense against infoglut is a good assistant. But what can managers do themselves?

Begin by practicing information triage. Information should be sorted by importance, not by medium; while you’re reading an E-mail about the company basketball league, a crucial fax may await. What needs to be dealt with immediately, what can go in the “read later” pile, and what can be discarded?

Noise can be attacked at the source by making it clear to communication partners how they can best communicate with you. “You need to manage communication technology,” says Addie Perkins Williamson of the Center for Organizational and Leadership Effectiveness, in Stamford, Connecticut. “Manage how, when, and by what medium people send you information.” If you are being bombarded with useless information, “inform the source that you have no use for it, and you can eliminate a lot of the clutter,” says Williamson.

Another way to reduce data smog is to reduce your own emissions, says author Shenk. Keep your E-mail and voice-mail messages short, and don’t send trivial information. “There is so much information out there that we have a responsibility not to put out too much,” he says.

Also, reconsider how connected you really need to be. “Cell phones and pagers go off no matter how important a meeting is,” observes Albert “Rocky” Pimentel, CFO of WebTV Networks Inc., in Mountain View, California. “There is no need to be wired 24 hours a day. There is something lost when we feel we need to be that connected.”

The truly desperate should consider professional help–like Barbara Fields, whose New York firm, Paperchasers, advises executives and small companies. Fields says her clients “are usually embarrassed to admit they need professional help getting organized.” In one case, she carted 56 garbage bags filled with paper from an executive’s office. “The situation was scary,” she recalls. “He kept everything.” Another executive had to clear a path on the floor to enable her simply to enter his office.

Information is like rain: it nourishes an organization, but too much can cause a destructive flood. “There has been a real change in the way we deal with information,” says Shenk. “The increased speed and volume of information have some real side-effects, like stress and alienation.” On the cusp of the 21st century, maybe it’s time to heed the words of a 19th-century American: “Our life is frittered away by detail,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in Walden. “Simplify, simplify.”

———————————————– ——————————— A DATA DIET

  • Give cell phone and beeper numbers only to key people.
  • Avoid office radios and televisions.
  • Limit your reading to a few newspapers and magazines. Set time limits for online information searches, and download only two or three of the best items. Learn when to stop gathering information for a project.
  • Keep your own correspondence short and to the point. Edit your outgoing E-mail messages. Keep voice-mail messages brief, and others may do the same.
  • Let people know the best ways to communicate with you. Tell them there is no need to confirm receipt of less-important materials.
  • Need professional help to overcome clutter? Try the National Association of Professional Organizers, in Austin, Texas: (512) 206-0151.

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