In the fast-paced, rapidly shifting market we inhabit, the myriad of digital tools knowledge workers have heaved at them with the goal of more efficiently managing vital tasks and business communications can grow dizzying.
No-one enjoys or necessarily benefits by spending a third of his day browsing through random email lists, for instance, but that’s exactly what they wind up doing at the office, according to the American Society of Employers.
Information overload, in other words, has and remains a force enterprises must attempt to harness before the beast takes over. An oft-cited Basex study on the topic of information overload found 44 percent of the average knowledge worker’s day is spent reading content like emails or whiling away the hours responding to information overload.
Across the country, electronic distractions potentially lead to some $1.3 trillion in lost productivity, the American Society of Employers has found.
Office workers are interrupted about every three minutes, a University of California, Irvine informatics researcher found. The same study found once interrupted, it takes an office worker about 23 minutes to return to the original task.
The deleterious effects of information overload doesn’t stop there. Conquer Cyber Overload author Joanne Cantor writes about studies that show multitasking lowers brain capacity to accomplish a given task. Employees may be able to remember what they’re doing at an elementary level, but they can’t bring information into the larger context needed for critical thinking, let alone create new ways of thinking about the task in general.
It turns out our brains are designed to focus on one task at a time; studies have shown that people who worked on two tasks simultaneously took 30% longer and made more errors than those who finished one task before starting another.
That’s not encouraging news considering 66% of knowledge workers – about 70 million workers in the U.S. – don’t feel they have enough time to complete their work, and over half say the amount of information they are presented with daily is detrimental to completing their work tasks.
The problem is plain to see and the solutions involve pairing down what we assign and what we take in on an everyday basis to ensure we harness the power of digital tools and bring work tasks to a successful conclusion.
So let’s turn to six steps any knowledge worker can take to simply his or her work processes and get information overload under control, create more space for valuable work product and make better business decisions based on calm consideration, not frenzied panic.
1 – Focus. The research shows that the human brain can take in only so much information at one time before our wires get crossed, we stress, tune out and our performance drops off a cliff. This performance decline involves filtering out information and favoring data from familiar sources, regardless of merit. It involves remembering data presented in one format, and forgetting the other data. Companies are constantly pumping out reports from finance, marketing, project teams, external researchers, etc. Believe me, not everyone at your office, or offices, needs to see all of this data. And if you keep flooding their inboxes with it, eventually they’ll ignore the data the specific member(s) of your team does actually need to see. Which should be the ultimate goal of generating reports. Bain did a study and found an energy company was generating reports on 400 line items. After a review of their communications processes, it reduced the line items to the top 30 that added real value, reduced reporting costs and led to better business decisions.
2 – Standardization. Get everyone on the same page with similar data sets to solve issues and meet deadlines. Whether you’re grappling with data sets culled from disparate sources and formats, or attempting to unify marketing research in campaigns at different branches to glean meaningful decisions based on customer feedback, standardizing data is key to harnessing the power of meaningful data analysis. Make sure your team doesn’t have to jump through hoops to get at the right information. Healthcare systems, for example, have to standardize structured data collected through automated formats like Electronic Medical Records (EMR) systems, which account for about 20 percent of their overall input — as well as the remaining unstructured data, or that information gathered in more traditional ways such as written records and notes. On a smaller scale, managers of regional restaurant chains may collect sales and inventory data, or store licensing, insurance and permitting in varying formats. Developing an overarching system for collecting and sharing the data is key to operational efficiency and decreasing information overload.
3 – Disperse the right information, at the right time. Keep those people in the know when they need to know it, nothing more, nothing less. It’ll boost productivity and reduce costs big time. Think twice before you send that text with the 1090 attachment to the entire Austin office, or copy every message between billers and inventory to the management team; instead, just send it to Jim the accountant, who’s the only one who really needs to review and sign it. If you’re not sure whether Joe, Betsy and Billy would also benefit from seeing the report, they probably won’t. The pharmaceutical manufacturer Bain was collecting large amounts of data about potential markets for a drug under development while the drug was still being tested in the lab. Of course, there are all sorts of drugs under development that never make it through major reviews by the FDA and other regulatory bodies. That company decided to hold off on this specific type of data collection until the drug had made it to a later stage in the regulation process and saved untold time and money wasted pondering markets for a drug that potentially never made it out of the lab.
4 – Use search tools that allow you to access to the data you need. The ability to quickly and easily mine internal data sets – from employee and inventory lists to tax records, licensing and credential renewals to patient records or financial reports — can speed up production, distribution and inventory optimization, as well as report generation. Collecting and standardizing the data is vital, but so is making sure your search tools are as intuitive and hassle free as possible. As Apple and LEGO have learned, also make sure you have the ability to access customer feedback and input when making decisions about modifying not just your marketing, but your product or retail processes. Businesses that better the quality and timeliness of information employees receive about customers improve performance by 20 to 50 percent.
5 – Focus on clarity, not quantity. Learn to communicate using Situation, Background, Assessment and Recommendation (SBAR) and other techniques for concisely saying what must be said to convey meaning, intention, objectives and decisions. The Navy first developed SBAR for the nuclear submarine industry and aviators later adopted the technique for communications that must be made quickly and efficiently. Healthcare has taken it up more recently to relay the quickly shifting nature of disease and treatments among clinicians in varying provider settings. Secure texting, for example, is an ideal format to communicate when a phone call or email takes too much time and your deadline is imminent.
6 – Educate and test. Effective communication can seem like a more nebulous aspect of cutting down on information overload, but it is critical to tackle in order to do so. Research has shown that the more highly developed the communication knowledge and skills of senders and receivers of texts and other messages, the more effectively the message will be correctly read and understood. To begin, any organization has to develop achievable objectives for its communications, construct relevant messages and then transmit them through diverse channels (text, email, task assignment, documents and forms with standardized data format, etc.) with the ultimate idea of simulating conversations among employees. Also as the methods of transmission of communications grows at a seeming exponential pace, formal and informal business communications have to increasingly be geared toward the needs and concerns of those who receive the messages.
One of these major concerns, information overload, must be considered so that brevity, clarity, objectives and actions are all clearly understood. Making sure employees have understood important communications relevant to their immediate and long-term priorities and tasks should always be top of mind. This also involves removing ambiguity in the designation and objective of work tasks. Test employees to determine who understands what the short-term task or long-term project is about and who needs extra training before, rather than after, the project is due.
To learn more how SimplyConfirm can help your team, take a look at the Smart Task Manager