Too much information



Technological advances mean companies are being bombarded with more and more information on a daily basis. Deciphering and organizing all that data has many organizations and employees experiencing information overload, though. Indeed, “extracting meaning from the noise” will have a “large” or “extremely large” impact on business over the next two to five years, according to 74 percent of the 1,402 business managers and thought leaders from 49 countries responding to a study by Monitor Networks, Cambridge, Mass., USA.

Cheryl Strait of Robbins-Gioia LLC, Alexandria, Va., USA, and Ross Dawson of Advanced Human Technologies, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, discuss how companies can deal with all that data.

What's driving the information overload organizations experience today?

Ross Dawson: The Internet has been an immense boon in providing business with easy access to troves of information, instantaneous communication with clients and suppliers, and new ways of marketing. On the other side of each of these blessings is the reality of having to deal with more communication, more e-mails and more information. Whatever your area of specialization, there is literally too much new information to keep up with. As a result, dealing with information overload effectively has become one of the most important factors in business success today. That will only be accentuated in the years ahead.



—Cheryl Strait, Robbins-Gioia LLC, Alexandria, Va., USA

Cheryl Strait: The volume of records generated has heightened the importance of managing information. Inadequate practices, along with increasing costs and associated risks, have led organizations to adopt strategies to manage the storage and retrieval of business information more effectively. Executives are recognizing information as a vital strategic asset that must be carefully managed and controlled.

What can organizations do to manage information overload?

Ms. Strait: Organizations must find creative ways to organize, classify, secure and retrieve sensitive information while at the same time differentiating critical from non-critical data. Storage space is expensive, and information must be produced in an efficient way to minimize costs and maximize effective retrieval of data to support legal, regulatory and business needs.

Mr. Dawson: It's important to understand that information overload is felt by people, not by organizations. Ultimately, this is about individuals—trying to do their work—who are being bombarded with e-mails and documents and find themselves spending a large portion of their day sorting through their inbox and looking for the information they need. Organizations need to help their executives and staff deal with information overload. This includes setting up good information systems, providing databases, giving access to useful software and tools, and providing training.



—Ross Dawson, Advanced Human Technologies, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

How can companies manage the balance between too little and too much information?

Ms. Strait: Organizations continue to wrestle with information management strategies and business priorities. Creating a balance requires a focused strategy that enables the organization to identify their information management needs and issues, which are used to outline a direction and vision that will enhance and mature current capabilities. Balance also requires having business processes aligned with technology and having the management of information integrated into the processes and technology components.

Mr. Dawson: There is a concept of the “right information, at the right time, in the right format.” That is the ideal that organizations are seeking, to make sure that whatever staff members are doing, they have all the information needed to do that job and nothing more. This ideal can never be reached, but thinking about how to achieve it is a great starting point for designing an organization's information systems.

A project manager, for example, will need access to all of the relevant information on a project presented in the most quickly understandable format. This means that systems need to be implemented that help assess how relevant or important particular information is, so that only the critical information is seen at a first glance, rather than all of the details. This thinking has also driven the rapid uptake of information dashboards.

Is this all about technology?

Mr. Dawson: No. Certainly, implementing software and systems will be at the heart of any organization effective at dealing with information overload, but there are many other issues. One of the most important is training. I find it startling that around 80 percent of the workers in developed countries deal essentially only with information and knowledge, yet almost none have had any training on how to be a better knowledge worker. The advent of search engines has given everyone the power to search for information for themselves, yet that doesn't mean they're good at it. Being able to find, research, assess, synthesize and communicate information are vital skills for organizational productivity, and we shouldn't expect everyone to be brilliant at these skills without training.

In addition, an attitude of collaboration is essential to take advantage of the new technologies. It is now possible to share information far more easily, within and across organizations, with immense benefits. Yet if an organization doesn't have a culture of sharing information, the tools are basically useless. Building this culture will increasingly impact companies' ability to compete in the marketplace.

Ms. Strait: Software creates, captures, stores, distributes and retrieves information. The proliferation of information is succinctly tied with the user-friendly capabilities of today's software applications. It is this ease of use that elevates the need to provide structured and disciplined management of information.


ROSS DAWSON is CEO of international consulting firm Advanced Human Technologies, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. He's also the author of Developing Knowledge-Based Client Relationships Second Edition [Butterworth-Heinemann, 2005].

CHERYL STRAIT is a principal consulting manager at Robbins-Gioia LLC, Alexandria, Va., USA. She has more than 20 years of experience in business management, including project management, process re-engineering, organizational change management and records management.

What are some of the best practices or emerging trends you see in information management?

Ms. Strait: Effective information management provides for user-friendly technological design relative to the creation, storage, search and retrieval of information. It also reduces redundancy, encourages reuse of information and identifies ownership. Two essential components for defining effective information management are electronic records management (ERM) and enterprise content management (ECM). ERM provides a defined, structured and disciplined practice to appropriately manage and control business records. ECM provides a means to create, store, manage, secure, distribute and publish any digital content for enterprise use. ECM involves electronically emulating the way people work without disrupting daily routines and includes creating digital places where people can work and automatically capturing the content produced.

Mr. Dawson: Many organizations are experimenting with social software, such as blogs and wikis, often with great success. Blogs provide a common space for people to note what they are doing, what information they've seen that is useful and discuss others' contributions. Wikis provide a common space to work on a single document. As such, these simple tools provide a fantastic platform for project management that can be far more effective than the current default practice of sending e-mails to everyone.

Whose responsibility is it to implement effective information systems?

Ms. Strait: All individuals within an organization are responsible for managing the information they create, use and disseminate. Executives must be committed sponsors for effective information management within their organization. This includes providing vision and leadership support. Executive involvement establishes a sense of urgency crucial to reach every individual employee. The interaction between the various executive players ensures business strategies are integrated with information management practices.

Mr. Dawson: Ultimately this must be driven by the top management of an organization. The investment in technology need not be larger than it has been in the past, but it needs to be applied in the right areas. More importantly, there must be clear leadership and communication on the necessity of collaboration and sharing information.

Yet project managers can also drive the use of better tools and technologies in managing their projects. There's an opportunity to set up simple systems that mean each team member gets access to the information needed, without being overwhelmed by hundreds of irrelevant e-mails and documents. A good project manager will think carefully about how project information is made available to team members, because doing it well will mean a more efficient process, fewer resources, less risk and hopefully getting home earlier at night. PM




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