Information Overload Is Killing You and Your Productivity

IT leaders living in the "Too Much Information" Age need to take control of their work lives. A Burton Group report explains how to do just that.

CIOs and IT managers work in a world of constant communication and wave after wave of information flows—where the Extreme CIO, available 24/7/365, is always connected and always on.

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According to a recent Burton Group report, however, the cumulative response from the CIO community to all of this info-insanity is: "Stop the world! I need to get off!" Writes Burton Group analyst and report author Jack Santos: "The unceasing barrage of too much information affects not only a CIO personally, but also the IT organization and business as a whole."

The report ("The 'Too Much Information' Age: What CIOs Can Do About It") cites Accenture research that demonstrates the deluge and resulting confusion: 42 percent of IT managers complain that they are bombarded by too much information; 39 percent say they can't figure out which information is current; 38 percent say they need to weed out duplicate information; and 21 percent say they don't understand the value of the information they do receive.

But the survey data tells only half the story. When combined with anecdotal evidence, the picture painted by CIOs is more Jackson Pollack (chaotic) than Claude Monet (soothing).

According to the Burton Group report: Expectations for responsiveness have increased; individuals feel an instinctive need to respond; the need to send or respond to a message may be closely aligned with an individual's need for immediate gratification (this may be coupled with employees who need to feel wanted and to confirm that they are an integral part of the decision-making process, known as the "CrackBerry effect"); technologies and capabilities for pulling important messages forward and pushing unimportant ones back are either absent, inadequate or unused; interruptions are often too frequent and, more importantly, not of sufficient value to warrant the interruption; and a knee-jerk reaction to the flow of information is to redisplay it in some way, with or without additional context, filtering, verification or summarization (the growth in corporate portals, dashboards, and scorecard applications reflects this reaction).

The bottom line? "Increased communication is not the same as effective communication," writes Santos. "Interruptions and more information are not inherently bad. How an individual or organization reacts to it is what will determine effectiveness."

Santos says that information overload can lead to serious personal and organization problems, including: inability to think strategically and focus on business basics; poor decision making; ignoring context of information and data; a breakdown of social and team skills; busy but ineffective executives; and inaccurate or unconfirmed information that results in rumors and bad decisions.

So what can IT execs do? Besides ensuring that CIOs surround themselves with trusted advisors and assistants who can help them control the information, Santos recommends these four tactics for limiting technology interactions and, thus, limiting the magnitude of the information overflow:

1. Schedule e-mail time. Set aside time for e-mail reading sessions for at least two to three times a day, for 5 minutes to 10 minutes at a time.

2. Turn that "e-mail arrived" chime off! Avoid the Pavlovian effect of responding to the e-mail "toast," which Santos says is that annoying pop-up interruption. "Use communication options on a scheduled basis, and limit interruptions to true emergencies," he writes. (In addition, Santos also recommends that CIOs try an "e-mail free Fridays" program for their staffs.)

3. Discontinue BlackBerry use. (Or at least keep real-time access off and check it on a predefined schedule, Santos recommends.) "Rather than responding to interruptions," he writes, "initiate communication on your schedule."

4. Set aside immersion times. "One well-publicized approach to information overload has been promulgated by Bill Gates—the information retreat (called a 'Think Week'). Biannually, Gates sets aside a week to consume items, books and articles of interest accumulated by his assistants," Santos writes. "This accomplishes two things: It keeps him current in a 'crash course' type of environment, and (for him) ferments a creative brew of ideas that translate to strategic initiatives for Microsoft."

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