On Leadership: Stemming the data deluge

In the 30 minutes it’s taken me to open this new Word document, read through three articles about today’s post and decide how to start writing, I’ve gotten eight e-mails. My TweetDeck browser has alerted me to 17 new tweets from the 300-odd people I follow. My phone has rung once, my laptop has popped up a small window telling me my anti-virus software is updated and a text message has arrived on my mobile phone. If the research that says that a 30-second interruption leads to five minutes of recovery time is indeed true, the entire last half-hour has been lost, and then some.

And this was all after I decided what I was going to write about. That idea came from my RSS reader — yet another source for news — which pointed me to a blog post at Leadership Now about the overwhelming amount of information most workers experience in today’s “knowledge economy.” The post offers a snapshot of a new book on the topic called “Overload!” by Jonathan Spira, who runs a research firm that studies worker productivity in our constant-interruption world.

→We’re all well aware of how much phone calls and text messages can interrupt our work flow, what a time suck Twitter can become and how inexplicably irritating the “reply-all” button can be. But the numbers Spira trots out are still pretty jaw-dropping. He estimates that reading and processing 100 e-mail messages can occupy more than half of a worker’s day. For every 100 people who are unnecessarily copied on an e-mail, eight hours of productivity are lost. And he notes that one Fortune 500 company believes that an incapacitating amount of information costs the firm $1 billion in lost productivity per year.

Wrestling with this is fast becoming a serious issue for many companies and workplaces. The Economist recently noted that management consultants are spotting an opportunity for new clients — McKinsey & Co. has come up with three principles for business leaders to push to keep workers productive and not overly distracted. PriceWaterhouseCoopers has urged employees not to send e-mail over the weekends, so as to not create false urgency. French IT services company Atos Origin has a plan to go e-mail free in the next three years to cut down on what it calls the “information pollution.”

If that weren’t enough to prove that the movement fighting the data deluge is gaining steam, there’s now a nonprofit group devoted to tackling the problem: The Information Overload Research Group was launched in February to “conquer information overload” and “restore sanity” to working professionals. A buzz word has been coined: Blue State Digital founder Clay Johnson has a site called “InfoVegan” — “a blog about information obesity, information diets and civic accountability.”


Illustration by The Washington Post

And for those who aren’t so worried about e-mail distractions but think PowerPoint is the world’s worst productivity killer, there is this recent news from Switzerland. An organization in that country is devoted to ending the use of that ubiquitous and maddeningly dull software. The man behind the effort (who, naturally, is also trying to promote his book, The PowerPoint Fallacy) claims that PowerPoint costs Switzerland 2.1 billion Swiss Francs each year. With a 100,000 signatures, he will be able to hold a national referendum banning the program.

Something tells me such an effort would do well in the United States, too, especially in the military. But since a national ban on PowerPoint is, well, unlikely — and your company dropping e-mail just as much so — there are a few things leaders can do in the meantime to help fight the war on info overload. Stop sending e-mails that say nothing more than “thanks!” Avoid the “reply-all” button whenever possible. Try using flip charts instead of PowerPoint. Reserve “thinking time” in your schedule, and encourage employees to log off at least every once in a while, no matter how foreign that idea may be in your office.

And of course, turn off the alerts for new e-mails and Twitter updates. Given that I’ve heard a beep for each of the 34 tweets that have come through since I started writing, that’s some advice I should heed myself.

McGregor writes PostLeadership, about leading in a changing world.

Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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