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From information overload to communication overload

Who needs nine ways to be put on hold?

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Most new technology goes through a number of cycles as its use evolves - the novelty of invention, the feature explosion of differentiation, then hopefully the robustness of consolidation.

The third stage is generally too slow to arrive, as new features are often seen as the way to stay ahead. In the early 1990s arms race in word processing tools this led to the jibe, "who needs nine ways to do 'bold'?"

Arguably, nine different people might each have their own preference and choice, on the face of it, is a good thing but leads to confusion and inefficient dithering. This is particularly apparent with modern communications, where an avalanche of "incoming" messages arrive across our diverse sets of phone numbers, inboxes and contact routes - fixed phones, mobile phones, Skype handles, text messages, emails, instant messages. So, the question now might be, "who needs nine ways to be put 'on hold'?"

While any of these "incoming" messages or calls might be important or urgent, the likelihood is that most won't be and as it's generally impossible to tell (even with "urgent" flags on email and caller ID on phone calls) each one will be a distraction or diversion from the current task in hand. Traditional good time management practice says that distractions slow productivity as most people work most rapidly if they can focus on one task until completion.

So what can an individual do, and how can they be supported by their organisation to reduce the impact that communication overload has on their ability to be productive?

A great deal of communication may be spurious or relatively low value, simply confirmation or checking, and so in many cases redundant. "Did you get my email?", "Are we still meeting later?", "Hello, I'm on the train". The ability to make and receive phone calls while travelling (where legally permitted), and access emails while in some boring meeting may simply be generating increased activity rather than productivity. Sometimes it's not "good to talk", at least when there's nothing to say.

With so many communications channel options there is nothing to control the sequencing or interaction between different channels. A voicemail sent after an email may be listened to first, as there is no knowledge of order between communication systems. Troublesome for an individual, but potentially disastrous from an auditing perspective, where actions triggered by one message are not countermanded by another message through an alternative route. Policies that define suitable and unsuitable paths for different types of communication are worthy of investigation, supported by tools for auditing.

Instant communications is not always the most appropriate path. In an environment where being responsive and available are the key metrics, there is always the danger that these measurements will mask the real priorities - adding value or reducing cost for the organisation. There are some roles where a response is always expected - call centres, emergency services response - but not everyone, everywhere. On most occasions a measured, well informed, well judged decision is going to win out over the snap instant response.

Time management has formed part of background skills development for many employees, but the growth in communication channels means this skill needs widening. It is more than defining an etiquette for one form of communication or another (ie use a spelling checker, BUT NOT PERMANENT CAPITALS in email), and requires that individuals understand the different pros and cons of alternate modes of communication, how to select, and how to escalate from one to another.

The environment, both management and technology, has to provide support. Defining "urgent" and "important" should be an integral part of the management process, just like setting and measuring objectives. Where individuals are offered the opportunity to work from home or while mobile, expectations of responsiveness and availability are vital for both manager and employee, and may need to be negotiated now that work is rarely 9-5 at a fixed desk.

Technology can offer some direction and support, perhaps through a broader use and understanding of "presence" and "context", so that communication channels can be managed, but ultimately since individuals naturally communicate, they need to take responsibility for how and when. Being "too busy" or being constantly overloaded is often only a matter of setting and acting on personal and organisational priorities. Setting them should be a priority in itself, so that everyone can regain control and make best use of their working time.

Copyright © 2007, Quocirca

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