MIT Deputy Dean JoAnne Yates is co-author of an upcoming article on information overload called "Ubiquitous E-mail: Individual Experiences and Organizational Consequences of BlackBerry Use" (download PDF).
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 organizations adopt wikis so everyone sees everything going on, but that's actually a very hard transition to make properly. That approach requires changes in behaviors 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, e-mail 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 e-mail, that everyone checks in once each morning.