Under Fire

So much information, so little time

Flying a desk in the rarefied air of the senior executive suite is starting to demand the same skills as piloting a high-performance jet fighter. Like fighter jocks in cockpits crammed with attack radar readouts, weapon-status displays and critical flight information, modern executives are bathed in multiple streams of mission-critical electronic data. Spraying off the multi-display screen in front of an F-22 pilot is a dizzy dance of missile threats and launch envelopes, shoot-list tracks, flight information, and engine parameters. A similar blizzard of information engulfs business executives the instant they slide behind their desks and snap on their PCs. Instead of radar images of missile threats, the screen delivers competitor intelligence reports online.

Executive information systems update executives on the equivalent of their corporations' altitude, airspeed, fuel load and engine performance. A tumbling stream of electronic mail, personalised Internet news services, market trend analyses and voice mail messages combine to place executives under roughly the same information stress as fighter pilots on a combat mission.

Pushing executives into overload conditions are video -- and teleconferencing sessions, focus group transcripts, clipping services, government studies, trade magazines, and a mind-numbing mountain of archived research reports in the corporate electronic knowledge base. On top of that, mobile phones have turned even the daily commute or weekend picnic into an extension of the office for many a senior executive. Helping drive all this is the globalisation of business. "In the old days, I'd just read the annual reports of three or four competitors," says Rod Wodson, direct marketing manager with?life?insurance?company National Mutual. Now you have to look at everybody because you are being benchmarked not against the players on your local turf but against the world's best practice."Battery Hens Aircraft designers spend fortunes to create de-cluttered cockpits and lighten mission management burdens for fighter pilots. But executives being called on to assimilate ever-higher amounts of information from an ever-mounting number of sources are largely left to their own devices. Those who can't create strategies for streamlining their information intake are vulnerable to something called Information Fatigue Syndrome. It is a malady that senior managers may recognise privately, but one that is still officially invisible in most organisations. In surveys of business executives carried out by news agency Reuters, two-thirds of respondents cited stress induced by information overload as a factor in loss of job satisfaction. Forty-two per cent blamed it for ill health. The surveys also showed a tendency for managers to turn into info-addicts, hungry for additional morsels of information whether or not they could digest them. For example, six out of 10 said they needed high levels of information to perform effectively. Yet nearly half admitted they were unable to properly process the amount of information they were already collecting.

Tellingly, more than eight out of 10 saw a need for corporate training to help them cope with the situation.

"There is a desperate need for an effective way of screening and categorising inbound information," says Graham Henry, Andersen Consulting's managing partner for Australia and New Zealand. He believes the information overburden has gone exponential in the last five years. "It has been driven by the ease with which people can send you material. One of the greatest curses of this technology is it is so easy to copy everybody." Going public about the stress levels associated with being a battery hen in an electronic cage is not a smart career move for executives climbing the corporate ladder. However, there is evidence that a rising number are quietly deciding the game isn't worth the candle.

Andersen Consulting, for example, has lost half a dozen prime executives in the past 12 months. "These are people in their mid-40s with great futures ahead of them in key roles," says Henry. "They were very successful partners who would have become paramount leaders of the firm if they had stayed. But they decided this just wasn't the way they wanted to live their lives." Such departures are unusual at Andersen and "for that many to do it in one year is extremely rare".

Henry is responsible for Andersen Consulting's Asia-Pacific business integration systems organisation, which has about 5000 staff. His weekly work hours lie "somewhere north of 60", and his daily information overload starts with 40 to 60 voice mails and 100 e-mail messages. Additionally, he electronically monitors market surveys and other research -- both externally commissioned and generated in-house -- and averages two to three videoconferences or teleconferences a day, each lasting an hour. "I still get the same information and knowledge I used to base decisions on five years ago," Henry says. "But the way I get it has changed. Now it is mostly electronic and buried in encyclopedic volumes of other stuff. So I spend a lot of time extracting it from a mass of surrounding material whose value-add is very small. "I try very hard to avoid becoming an information junkie. I very much don't read stuff sent for my 'information only', I only read topics that I am having to deal with on an immediate basis. If I need more information, I can use our internal knowledge network or the Internet."Given the time pressure and deluge of data, Henry concedes the only way any manager can get through a day is by multitasking. But the knack of doing several things at once using electronic gadgets can be taken to outrageous extremes. "The very worst thing you can have in meetings these days is a group of 30 people and when you look up at, they are all there clicking away on their laptop keyboards, clearing their Lotus Notes e-mail messages," says Henry. "It is only when they look directly at you that you know you are getting a time slice on the topic you're talking about. People get forced into doing it but I believe it really detracts from the value of the meeting." To keep the electronic fire-hose of information in perspective, Henry points out that without it "the job I do couldn't exist. There would simply be no way to get across the required range of issues and topics and responsibilities. Whether this is an effect or a cause of the globalisation everyone is seeing, I don't know. But I do know you couldn't facilitate Andersen's level of global operations without these technologies."If there is one technology that contributes the lion's share of the corporate info-burden, it is e-mail. Amazingly, almost no senior executive is given any training on how to use the filtering functions built into e-mail packages. The catch-22 seems to be they can spare the time to learn the skills that will save them time. So they develop their own rules of thumb, including: Marinate.

"I have a place I call my marinating pot where I put the stuff which I could give some input but nobody is asking for it," says Henry. "If someone doesn't give the pot a stir by asking for a follow-up, it putrefies and gets thrown out." Click and Flick.

National Mutual's Wodson wades through between 40 and 60 corporate e-mail messages daily using "click and flick" screening. One click tells him if the message is a housekeeping memo -- in which case it is flicked into the trash bin -- or relates to some project he's currently working on and therefore worth a deeper read. Attachments are a growing problem, he says. "You get a copy of everything these days because it is so easy to attach things to e-mail. I'd estimate upwards of 20 per cent of the e-mail I get have attachments. Detaching and opening them all takes time."On the voice mail front, Wodson deploys several strategies to shrink message volumes. One is to give callers seeking appointments the option of pressing a button to divert the message to his secretary. "The other lesson I've learned is to encourage people to leave extended messages about what they want, not just a phone number. Our system lets you hit a button and go direct to their voice mail with a response -- so that avoids telephone tag." He hopes workable intelligent agents will one day arrive to reduce his reading burden. "Once I'm confident they can do the job, maybe I can stop taking home an hour and a half of reading material every night." However, he has a nagging suspicion that forward leaps in technology often take place over the corpse of common sense.

He recalls one client company, a firm of civil engineers, that originally depended on slide rules to work out the amount of concrete needed for projects.

Then it jettisoned the slide rules in favour of Hewlett-Packard calculators, which in turn gave way to PCs and specialised software. "Now they come up with answers accurate to seven decimal places but it takes them eight times as long as it did with a slide rule and uses equipment that costs 60,000 times as much."Skim and Pick.

"If you had the kind of personality that requires you to sit down and read everything in detail, you'd be lost," Andersen's Henry says. "One of the most important skills is the ability to skim -- to know what you have to go after and pick the eyes out." Take No Prisoners.

Terry Keeley, a Sun Microsystems vice president based in the US, receives a phenomenal torrent of three to four hundred e-mails per day. Sifting through them rips two and a half hours out of his day. To keep his head above the waterline, Keeley applies some brutal rules of thumb. "If I get an e-mail addressed to somebody else besides myself, I figure the sender is confused and I don't read it." He also demands his staff trim any messages they send him to half a page or less. Yet Keeley views as well-spent the time he pours into dealing with his e-mail because it accelerates his ability to make decisions.

Just as inventory turnover is a measure of corporate health, so decision turns are a guideline to the productivity of its executives, Keeley argues. E-mail technology helps him to arrive at decisions sooner and "productivity is about making faster decisions, not about saving time".

High Flying Archive.

Archiving non-urgent messages to a laptop and dealing with them while in transit at 30,000 feet is a universal ploy for dealing with e-mail overload.

For frequent flyers like Andersen's Henry, who spends 20 hours a week flying over either the Pacific or Atlantic oceans, it is a godsend -- at least until his batteries fail.

Sender Beware

Patrick Lo, jet-setting vice president and general manager of Netgear, a subsidiary of networking colossus Bay Networks, does a rapid first sort based on the name of the message sender. "You know some people have nothing to say, so when you see their names, you junk the message. The ones that need action I can pretty well tell from the sender and subject lines. The rest are "informational' which I skip until I get on a plane."Gut Feel According to Lo, besides keeping messages short and sweet, the real key to mastering e-mail is to control the time slots when e-mail is allowed to intrude. "I turn off the chime (announcing new message arrivals) and will only open e-mail at the times I want -- typically first thing in the morning and last thing at night." Lo works a 70-hour week but shrugs off suggestions of stress. "If you like what you are doing and believe you are working on a mission that will bring benefits to people and that you are winning, your stress levels go way down," he says. "If you hate what you are doing and are losing, the levels go way up." Though he's woven a web of electronic information around himself, Lo says it is not the main factor in his decision making. "I work on gut feel. I don't think you should hire five market research services to pump as much information at you as you can absorb and then slice and dice it. I believe you get one set of research data, talk to customers, resellers and distributors, visit shops and then make a gut feel decision."GartnerGroup Asia Pacific Research director Bob Hayward spends two hours a day on e-mail, and the unstructured nature of the beast bothers him. "You have no idea what the next topic may be. One second you are dealing with a person complaining about his car park space and the next you are dealing with a major piece of research," says Hayward. "It weighs on my mind that hidden among 20 not-so-critical messages may be the critical one that requires immediate action." Hayward admits he doesn't make use of any filtering features and doesn't "siphon off messages as well as he should". His home-grown screening system sorts messages into different levels of priority, from same day to same month. In terms of finding time to answer his e-mail, "I actually make an appointment to do it by slotting time into my calendar where I do nothing but e-mail". Between e-mail, voice mail and mobile phones, the constant demand for attention by the electronic environment can wear down the strongest executive.

However, refusing to replicate your Lotus Notes database from home, or unilaterally deciding not to answer your mobile, offends the unwritten corporate code of conduct.

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