Information Overload: Do As I Say, Not As I Do?

Too much e-mail or just enough?

“I don’t really spend that much time on e-mail…” “E-mail sometimes overwhelms my day.”

These two perspectives sound as if they represent two polar extremes in the knowledge workforce, but they actually are coming from the same people.

In a series of surveys and interviews by Basex, over the past year, we found some interesting trends in how knowledge workers are impacted by Information Overload, and what they are doing about it.

But we also found that what the survey respondents tell us in surveys is directly contradicted by what the same people tell us in telephone interviews.

After conducting a series of surveys that reached a total of 1000 knowledge workers at a large North American company, we would like to share with you some initial analysis, as well as out thoughts on some contradictory data we received.

From our surveys, we found that knowledge workers at the company were spending a relatively low amount of time reading, writing, and managing e-mail messages. Specifically, around 50% spent 15-30 minutes reading e-mail and 15-30 minutes writing e-mail. Around 65% also spent 15-30 minutes managing their inboxes. We took the low numbers to be a positive sign in that it didn’t indicate an e-mail-obsessed work culture. Additionally, when specifically asked about sources of Information Overload, very low numbers of respondents felt e-mail was a significant problem.

Surveys are typically one of several parts of our research process, in this case the second part. It was when we got to the third part, one-on-one interviews, that alarm bells started sounding.

Interviewees consistently reported rampant overuse of e-mail in the form of excessive cc’ing and bcc’ing. In addition, the use of attachments in e-mail messages in lieu of using one of the company’s document management platforms was a clear problem.

The contradiction between what knowledge workers reported in the survey and what they said in interviews is intriguing, and may simply be a function of the format. When filling out a survey, answers must fit into the rigid format of the survey, without room for nuance. In an interview, there is more room for conversation that allows for ideas to be expanded.

Knowledge workers were also asked to tell us what methods they used to deal with Information Overload. The top three responses were all very personal actions, meaning actions taken on a personal level that do not necessarily extend to teams or work groups.

The following were the top three techniques that survey respondents reported using when dealing with Information Overload:
1.) Focusing on work and limiting self-interruptions (84.5%).
2.) Use of productivity and time management systems (33.4%).
3.) Using better search techniques (33.1%).
While all three selections are valid ways to address Information Overload, the problem is that some of the most effective methods are more group-based. Those techniques were selected by low numbers of respondents

For example, indicating one’s up-to-date presence information via instant messenger has been found to be an effective way to minimize interruptions when adopted on an organizational level, yet only 14.7% of respondents reported using that technique. Additionally, turning off e-mail notifications is a highly effective method of focusing on work and not constantly checking one’s inbox; however for employees to feel comfortable in doing this, there must be a top-down understanding of expected e-mail response times. Only 12.3% of respondents indicated that they turn off e-mail notifications.

It’s clear that the knowledge workers at this company suffer greatly from Information Overload-related issues. What’s compelling about our findings here is that it’s clear that surveys without significant follow-up via interviews can result in significant underreporting of the problem.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex. He can be reached at jspira@basex.com

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