National Knowledge Management Research meeting "Made in Holland" (11)

Ruud Janssen (Telematica Instituut): Coping with information overload

Information overload is a popular subject. And for good reasons. Lots of media comes at use via lots of different ways. However we can only process a certain amount of information at a certain speed in a certain amount of time. This can stress people, which, in short, we call ‘information overload’. Refer to NRC article, Nov. 8, 2007: "Inbox overflow leads to less colleague contact".

Following interviews and workshops, e-mail is usually seen as the culprit (ambiguous e-mails, e-mail avalanches, number of e-mails, etc.). They also found that some managers suffer more from information overload than others. This seems to result from the way they handle information overload. In other words: the way one handles information overload relates to how much you suffer from it.

Furthermore information overload is not always experienced, but in periods of time.

They focused on information overload coping strategies for e-mail. Some good and bad examples of strategies that were mentioned are:
- when an ambiguous mail is received, send an email back to sender that this irritates you
- be selective and delete non-relevant mail right away
- be a good example
- process e-mail in evening hours

Information overload usually traps employees, they can’t get out of the never-ending circle. (Refer to: Edward Hallowell, Overloaded circuits; why smart people underperform, HBR 2005.)

So started out to help employees cope with e-mail information overload. Some ideas are:
- use an e-mail code of conduct (defined by the employees in a workshop)
- use an e-mail coach that helps you write and send more effective e-mails
- use an e-mail analyzer or inbox prioritizer (based on social network analysis of your e-mail behavior)
- give tips for efficient task management
- conduct self-tests to help you understand your e-mail use and how you can change your way of working

They asked employees to apply these strategies. The results were promising. E.g. the e-mail code of conduct was the employee’s favorite (- to their surprise).


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