When I decided to tell my friends this week that my wife is three months' pregnant with our first child, I also unintentionally conducted a bit of a social experiment.
Although in most cases I know my friends' work e-mail addresses, I decided to use their personal accounts. It seemed to make sense. We are obviously excited about this news, but it really has nothing to do with work. And since this is the last week before the holidays, I figured people might be rushing to finish up projects and might prefer to get this kind of announcement on their own time. After sending off the message at about 9:30, however, I started getting responses within minutes. The first came from my colleagues here at IT World Canada, but a friend who was also presumably busy at his office in another part of the city also congratulated me from his home account. So did countless others, suggesting that if they were grappling with information overload based on what they get out of corporate information systems, their challenge is compounded by what they have to manage through personal information systems.
This is a more critical issue than most people realize, because it has to do with a reality that isn't always acknowledged when technology-enabled workflow is designed by IT departments. When we think of how users behave, we think of them answering phones to deal with customers, responding to e-mails from team members and partners, or entering information about orders and projects into Web-based portals. Unless deadlines are missed or too many errors get through (or unless you work for the City of Toronto), employers tend to overlook the amount of Facebook checking that goes on, the instant messaging to family members and the personal blogging that creeps into the average workday. For every enterprise information worker there is a good chance of finding a shadow information worker focused on personal information management.
When information overload hits -- whether that be too many spam e-mail messages or too many BI reports to sift through -- IT managers may find themselves with the uncomfortable task of factoring in whether the real problem is the shadow information worker putting their priorities first. I'm sure at least a few of my friends (who I hope will still be my friends after this post, but that's the risk you take as a journalist) had more important work-related things to do than read my baby news and get back to me with a personal response. But they didn't, because they loved (please let this past tense not be necessary) me more than their mission-critical work. The ones who got back to me in the off hours might have put their work first -- hey, where's the love, dammit? -- or they might not be as adept at balancing personal information flow and work information flow.
Of course, "information overload" tends to ebb and crest every now and then, often when new technologies or processes are introduced. And employees who are otherwise chained to their desks might have some justification for using personal information management as a mental break. The issue is whether we're doing enough to study the volume of data and associated management that falls into the personal realm. Most of the studies I've seen talk a lot about how much information is doubling every year, but there's not a breakdown into how much of that information is important only to specific individuals and how much might affect someone's bottom line. Digging deeper into this problem and helping IT managers develop a strategy to deal with it would be a great service to the industry, but I'm not sure I'm qualified to do it. That's going to have to be someone else's baby.