Overcoming Information Overload

So you start a typical workday and wade through 75 to 100 e-mail messages. Or perhaps more.

Then you move on to voice mail, which is limited, thankfully, to accepting only 15 messages since you last checked it.

Afterward, it's time to check a handful of Web sites and repeat this process several times a day. Mail and other paper-based notices also need your daily review. Meanwhile, your pager, personal digital assistant, and cell phone keep constituents in constant contact with you, and you with them.

At some point, it can all seem like too much to handle.

IT managers, along with the corporate personnel they serve in the so-called Information Age, need to develop skills for managing information overload. This condition results from having a rapid rate of growth in the amount of information available, while days remain 24 hours long and our brains remain in roughly the same state of development as they were when cavemen communicated by scrawling messages in stone.

"There's just so much out there, it's difficult to be able to keep track of it all just to do my job," says Joseph DeWalt, a network engineer for a midsize Midwestern city, who notes that the information he must keep track of ranges from the latest OS patches to e-mail from users about what is not working.

Working on Internet Time

"The IT professionals that I'm talking about are all complaining that it's worse than ever because we're all on Internet time. The compressed time for decision-making is putting more demands than ever on our time," says Wayne Cascio, a professor of management at the University of Colorado, in Denver.

The Web has presented users with huge amounts of information, and some may feel they will miss something if they do not review all available data before making a decision, Cascio says. But professionals need to recognize that they will not have every bit of information available.

"The key decision is: When do I have enough?" Cascio says.

Researchers who have looked into the subject say that although technology is causing the information overload, it can also offer ways to combat it.

One strategy to consider is instituting information "filters." To cope with volumes of data, e-mail filters can be used to screen out less-than-critical messages and prevent an overwhelming amount of data from being thrown at a person, Cascio says. Deleting your name from list servers is another way to limit the influx of e-mail.

Technology vendors have developed products intended to make information access easier. At IBM, for example, researchers have yielded a technology known as Web intermediaries, which can provide a customized view of Web information to make it easier to focus on specific information.

But technical solutions may not be enough. They can exacerbate the overload problem, because they do not necessarily restrict how much information you can receive -- they just make it easier to get it to you.

Establishing boundaries and deadlines is critical, Cascio stresses. Users need to take control of the information coming their way.

"You can't look at everything," Cascio says. "This is part of this mental set of saying 'I'm going to take control.' "Working 60 to 70 hours per week is one way to manage information, Cascio says.

But this is not ideal because it relinquishes control over the situation, he says.

Key to information management is focusing on the quality of the data you receive. But determining quality can be tough, says Christopher Oliver, an orthopedic surgeon and director of faculty at the Royal College of Surgeons, in Edinburgh, Scotland. He has written on the topic for the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons.

"A guy's got to recognize what quality is, but there are not enough mechanisms out there to recognize quality at the given time," Oliver says. "People are not particularly good at knowing their computers and managing this information and filtering this information. It's a real turnoff. This overload can be quite destructive."

Alan Lightman, a humanities professor and physics lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, also takes a pessimistic view of the effect of technology on communication. People need to examine what they are getting into when they adopt technologies, he says.

"I think that the high-speed information technologies, while very useful in many ways, have robbed us of our necessary silences of time to reflect on values on who we are and where we're going," Lightman says.

The results of the information flood and the fast pace in general of a high-technology-based business world have been bad decisions that were rushed, Lightman says.

Lightman himself does not use e-mail. "It's sort of a feeble stance on my part," he says.

Publicly, there needs to be more discussion and awareness of information overloading, Lightman says. Lightman, who spends his summers on an isolated island in Maine without roads, bridges, or telephone services, does not hold out much hope for improvement. He is at work on a novel titled The Diagnosis, about what he perceives to be the psychological damages caused by high-speed information technologies.

"I'm not optimistic. My novel has no happy ending, I can tell you," Lightman says.

Finding Solutions

In the end, people dealing with information have to do what works for them, advises Jan English-Lueck, chairwoman of the anthropology department at San Jose State University, in San Jose, California. The department is working on a study called the Cultures Project, which examines life in Silicon Valley.

Filtering e-mail or using such techniques as color-coding information is one strategy, English-Lueck says. But employees may have the somewhat contradictory goals of limiting access to themselves while seeking broad-based access to everyone else, she says. "We get highly irritated when people don't listen to their voice mail or, if you can imagine, don't have a voice mail machine," English-Lueck points out.

How does an IT professional like Network Engineer Joseph DeWalt manage information? "Unfortunately, I do a lot of reading at home," DeWalt says. He reads magazine articles and sometimes e-mail at home or even on vacation, he says.

Although DeWalt hopes that new technological developments, such as thin clients, may ultimately reduce the amount of information that IT personnel need to track, he points to the open-systems movement, which has been heralded for freeing enterprises from the whims of a single vendor, as a contributing factor in his own predicament. IT personnel must now contact multiple sources for information on the myriad of products being deployed, DeWalt says.

"In the good old, bad old days of the mainframe, you went to one place," DeWalt says. "Now you've got to keep track of all this stuff."

Ways to Beat Back the Overload

Do

-- Develop an information management strategy that works for you.

-- Filter information.

-- Accept that not all pertinent data can be examined prior to a decision when data volumes are exceedingly high.

-- Attempt to recognize quality data.

-- Take control.

Don't

-- Let information take control of you by working 60 to 70 hours per week.

-- Take cell phones or computers on vacations.

-- Attempt to examine every piece of data available.

-- Focus on things beyond your control, such as the number of new Web pages being added daily.

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