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Stop the world! I need to get off!

Stop the world! I need to get off!

CIOs living in the 'Too Much Information' Age need to take control of their work lives. First, they need to turn that 'email arrived' chime off.

CIOs work in a world of constant communication and wave after wave of information flows — where the Extreme CIO, available 24x7x365, is always connected and always on. 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 organisation 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 per cent say they can't figure out which information is current; 38 per cent say they need to weed out duplicate information; and 21 per cent 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:

Schedule email time. Set aside time for email reading sessions for at least two to three times a day, for five minutes to 10 minutes at a time (See sidebar below "Productivity killers" to see how this is being done by a group of professors at the University of Sydney).

Turn that "email 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 "email free Fridays" program for their staffs.)

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."

Set aside immersion times. "One well-publicised 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."

Sidebar:

Productivity killers

Professor Hugh Durrant-Whyte has never owned a mobile phone and is not rushing to get one soon. As well, he only checks his email once a day.

But Durrant-Whyte, the director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Autonomous Systems at the University of Sydney, has valid reasons for what on the surface may seem a Luddite view towards the two common business tools.

“Communication is not a substitute for productivity,” says Durrant-Whyte, who was a speaker at the CIO Conference in Auckland. “Frankly, people waste a lot of time on phones.”

He says most of the senior people he knows in the science academia have given up their mobile phones. “The bottom line is people call you up even if you switch it off. You are sort of morally obliged to reply and it destroys productivity. People are obliged to communicate more often, rather than actually being more productive. There is something to be said for sitting down without being disturbed and getting on with whatever it is you need to get on with.”

Likewise, he sees email as a distraction and a foil for productive work. “Everyone’s email box — even if when you ignore spam — is now completely full. It sucks productivity. You spend so much of your day now simply answering email.”

Ironically, Durrant-Whyte has had email since 1979, when most of its users were from the academe. “In the early days it was sensible,” he says. “People thought before they sent an email about what it is they are going to say and why they are saying it. But now people send an email just because it seems to be a substitute for work.”

Last year he and a number of computer science academics agreed to conduct an experiment — answering their email only once a day. “Don’t answer it in the morning when generally you are most productive. Answer them once a day and then answer it fully and thoroughly,” says Durrant-Whyte, who answers his email at 4pm. “But by that point, you discover more than half of the email is no longer interesting because people sent them to you without thinking. If they thought a little bit harder, it wouldn’t be necessary [to send the email] and you get so much more done when you don’t look at your email.”

The downside is that “if you clearly need to be in a responsive mode, you are no longer in a responsive mode,” he says. The upside is that you get to “focus more on productive work”.

Is it possible he is able to do this because he is in the research sector? Durrant-Whyte smiles and says a lot of their research at the university is funded by industry. He says the first thing his industry colleagues try to do is buy him a mobile phone. “But I point out to them if I did have one, I will do less work for [them].”

He says he has influenced them to his point of view. “More of them no longer use their mobile phones the way they used to and no longer spend half their day with their email when it comes out in their computer. They actually don’t have it on at all,” he says, referring to the beep indicating an email has been received, “and hey, [they] get far more done.”

He sees more people taking this stance. “I think increasingly because everyone is beginning to say there are so many emails, everyone is calling you… We are spending more and more of our time communicating and actually doing less and less useful work. We have to change that.” Divina Paredes

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