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IORG schedules “Overloaded 2012” for Feb. 25 in San Francisco

The Information Overload Research Group is sponsoring a day-long conversation on that topic next month in San Francisco. It’s designed to be much like the two-day workshop at Microsoft Research that got the group going in 2007. If you’re interesting in helping to put a dent in the problem, this is your opportunity to influence the discussion.

Here’s the invitation sent out today by IORG president Nathan Zeldes:

“The Information Overload Research Group is excited to announce Overloaded 2012, a private one-day gathering amongst those who are leading the battle against information overload from a diversity of domains such as business, academia, technology, journalism, psychology, and research. If you share this interest, we’d love your attendance in San Francisco on Feb. 25, 2012.

“At this one-day event, we’ll have a couple of keynotes but will concentrate the day on creating a lively dialog, crossing organizational and domain boundaries, and developing new insight into the state of information overload as well as the latest solutions. This event is designed to open the way to ongoing collaboration in the future.

“This is not designed to be a full-fledged conference, but an intimate gathering of thought leaders working together in the heart of San Francisco. The cost to attend will be $75, which simply covers food and venue expenses. You are welcome to share this invitation with other IO practitioners that you know personally… but we will cap the attendance at about 75.

“Reserve your place by registering at our Eventbrite page (http://overloaded2012.eventbrite.com). We look forward to meeting you in what promises to be a productive, interesting and (not least) fun coming together of like minds.”

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Information overload: Are we closer to independence?

It’s been the biggest week that I can recall for commentary about information overload.

The week kicked off with the Information Overload Research Group’s “virtual literary salon” with five authors whose books address various facets of the topic: Dave Crenshaw (The Myth of Multitasking), Daniel Forrester (Consider), Maggie Jackson (Distracted), William Powers (Hamlet’s BlackBerry), and Jonathan Spira (Overload!). You can listen to the 90-minute panel and read excellent summaries at Overload Stories and Workplace Frontiers.

Chris Anderson, who curates the TED conferences, published an Email Charter (a blog post that evolved into a really great idea). He presents an insight that should be part of any business case for fighting overload: The average time taken to respond to an email is greater, in aggregate, than the time it took to create.

The charter includes 10 behaviors that will go a long way toward improving the way we use email. They include “Respect recipients’ time,” “Celebrate clarity,” and “Cut contentless responses.” David Pogue at the New York Times contributed five proposed rules of his own in “We Have to Fix E-Mail.”

At the Economist, Schumpeter articulately outlined the overall problem and potential solutions in “Too Much Information: How to Cope with Data Overload.” His prescription includes technology, willpower, training, and cultural change.

IDC released its fifth report on the state of the digital universe, “Extracting Value from Chaos.” The situation in a nutshell: “Like our physical universe, the digital universe is something to behold—1.8 trillion gigabytes in 500 quadrillion ‘files’—and more than doubling every two years. That’s nearly as many bits of information in the digital universe as stars in our physical universe.” You can download the PDF or view the multimedia edition. The Financial Post offers the Reader’s Digest version.

If you want the real Reader’s Digest’s take on information overload, RD itself weighed in with an article called “How to Save Your Brain from Online Overload.”

So as Independence Day approaches in the U.S., a question: Are we any closer to finding our freedom from information overload? One thing is certain: It will take a global village.

As Maggie Jackson said in the IORG panel discussion: “Beyond individual habits, this is a collective social task. We didn’t green the environment by changing our own trash habits.

“I see the same thing regarding attention and overload. We’re creating values with regard to attention.”

Certainly that’s true with the email charter. The key may be acting on William Powers’ counsel: “Do things with others in mind.”


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June 27 ‘virtual literary salon’ will discuss five information overload books

Five influential authors—all of whom have written books on various aspects of information overload—will come together June 27 in a “virtual literary salon.”

The free teleconference is produced by the Information Overload Research Group and runs from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. EDT.

The five authors and their books:

Dave Crenshaw, The Myth of Multitasking: How ‘Doing It All’ Gets Nothing Done (DaveCrenshaw.com)

Daniel Forrester, Consider: Harnessing the Power of Reflective Thinking in Your Organization (DanielForrester.com / @dpforrester)

Maggie Jackson, Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age (Maggie-Jackson.com)

William Powers, Hamlet’s BlackBerry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age (WilliamPowers.com / @HamletsBB)

Jonathan Spira, Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization (Basex.com)

Each author will discuss two topics—why they wrote their book, and the issues and solutions that are most significant. I’ve read Hamlet’s BlackBerry, Distracted and Overload!, and they’re all well worth your time. (The other two are on my must-read-soon list.)

You’ll find more detail than I’ve included here at iorgauthors.eventbrite.com, where you can register for the free teleconference.


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Employee communications will soon equal enterprise social networking

One of my favorite thinkers about employee communications is David Murray. He’s also one of the most engaging writers I know and runs a blog called Writing Boots. Recently, he bemoaned the fact that internal communications as a discipline seems to be moving backward:

When I was editor of the weekly communication trade publication The Ragan Report in the 1990s, all I had to do to get a raft of letters was refer to an employee publication as a “house organ.”

The operative phrase was: You just set employee communication back 30 years!

Silly, I know, to think you could set a whole profession back 30 years just by using old terminology.

But I do miss the underlying assumption, that this was a profession progressing. Progressing in all sorts of ways—from top-down to interactive, from “babies and bowling scores” to strategic, from corporate platitudes and stilted language to human candor.

These days, if you were going to set the profession back 30 years, in which direction would you push?

For 12 years, Murray edited the premiere publication devoted to internal communications: The Journal of Employee Communication Management.

The journal thrived in the first few years of publication, remained profitable for a number of years after that, and lasted until about 2008, when it died, not because the Internet made such journals obsolete (the Harvard Business Review is still coming out). Mostly, it died because there weren’t enough people in the whole world who were actually thinking about employee communication to write 36 decent essays every year, let alone read them.

The talented Murray isn’t jobless; he now edits Vital Speeches of the Day. Since I have spent much of my career as an internal communicator, I responded to his blog post. My point: That employee communications as we practiced it when I published the company newspaper at Weyerhaeuser is indeed going away. The “big voice” rhetorical model is being replaced—slowly and unevenly, to be sure—by the conversational model. One-way communications to employees—via publications, emails, intranet pages, etc.—will be superseded in the next several years by enterprise social networking.

Yes, companies will still need an “organizational voice,” but that’s where you’ll find it. Along with individual executive voices. And the voices of every employee with something to say. Here are the comments I shared with Murray:

I agree with your general premise—that things certainly aren’t what they were 10 or 15 years ago. But I look at it more as a matter of changing with the times.

Internal communications (the discipline) came into its own during the smokestack era. Corporate Communications departments ran the printing presses, and for good reason. Communicating was expensive, and companies had to get the most out of what they spent. Corporate Communications assembled the copy and art, ensured accuracy of the content, hunted down typos, and generally made sure that the news was, indeed, fit to print. Oh, and there was a bonus: the Communications department served as a convenient choke point enabling senior management (via the review process) to keep unpleasant news away from employees.

Now it’s a different world. Everyone’s a publisher. Every employee has access to free tools that enable him or her to tell their story to the world. Instantly. We’ve just crossed the line where more than half of all mobile phones sold in the U.S. are smart phones.

Access to social media from corporate networks will soon largely be a non-issue (except for HR). NYU professor Clay Shirky points out that the filtering that used to take place before publication (see above) now takes place afterward. But it’s often not very effective.

So the content comes cascading down on all of us. And that’s another problem. We’re expected to consume and act on more information than we can possibly process. As Intel’s corporate anthropologist Genevieve Bell put it recently, “we’ve got to the point where the demands of our devices exceed our ability to meet them.”

I agree with many of the people she cites that the current communications environment is not necessarily an improvement. It impacts everything from personal productivity and satisfaction to the quality of organizational decisions. But we’re not likely to change it.

So in that environment, what’s the role of carefully crafted feature stories? Who has the time to write—or read—thoughtful analysis? Where’s the space for the kind of four-columns-wide-packs-a-punch photojournalism we used to do?

Fifteen years ago, I gave a presentation about how internal communicators had evolved from town criers to jungle guides (this was in the early days of corporate intranets). We need to evolve again (and a lot of us are). The best analogy at this point may be “communications engineer.”

We will not recognize internal communications by 2020 (and maybe a lot sooner). I believe the action will move to enterprise social networking platforms like Yammer, Chatter, Moxie, Jive and others. Those provide status updates, collaboration capabilities, location of expertise, the ability for communities to self-organize, and a whole lot more. They’re not yet the “norm” in the majority of organizations, but they will be. And they will constitute a huge share of “internal communications.”

We need to figure out how we can bring value that IT can’t—and what we contribute in an environment where anyone can easily publish content—or it will be “welcome to irrelevancy.” Here’s where I think we fit in:

— We won’t be prized for our ability to tell stories. 22-year-olds with Flipcams (or whatever’s next) who work in Operations can put together videos that we can’t top.

— We may not be asked to help other organizations within the enterprise communicate their content. If they don’t already, they will soon have the tools and talent to speak to their audiences without our help.

— We may not even be paid to be “communications strategists,” as that term has been understood for decades. John Perry Barlow once said, “Email goes through an organization chart like meat tenderizer.” Social media does the same for communications strategies.

So what unique value do we add? I believe it’s this: We adjust the signal-to-noise ratio in favor of the signal. By virtue of who we are (the kind of people who want to do this work) and what we’ve studied, we understand how communications land on an audience and how the audience processes the inputs. We know what there needs to be less of. And we know how to make the most of the short bits of attention that employees can spare.

That sort of thing has always been part of our job. In the coming decades, however, it will be practiced very differently. We’ll be steering conversations (in person and online), finding new ways to influence, and helping shield employees from low-value information. It will require all the skills we currently have, and then some. It will involve complex and holistic thinking—not simply cranking out deliverables. We will need to help organizations build, maintain and constantly evolve the systems that communicate, engage employees, promote ever-increasing change, and foster collaboration.

If we do that really, really well, there might just be a place for us on the payroll.


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More and more about more and more

Is it me, or does it seem like everyone’s talking about the amount of information in the world? It’s an important topic for several reasons: We need to wade through it when we search, keeping on top of even a fraction is becoming progressively more impossible, and—as Shelley Podolny pointed out the other day in the New York Times—it occupies server farms that are both expensive and environmentally unfriendly. But is all the talk about the size of the beast taking focus off what we need to do to tame it?

Should you want to ponder the generation of information going back to antiquity, here are some items to add to your reading stack:

‘Too Much to Know’ (review of Ann Blair’s Too Much to Know by Serena Golden, Inside Higher Ed, March 17, 2011)

Information Overload’s 2,300-Year-Old History (Ann Blair, Harvard Business Review, March 14, 2011)

Drumbeat to E-Mail: The Medium and the Message (review of James Gleick’s The Information by Janet Maslin, New York Times, March 6, 2011)

The Information: How the Internet gets inside us (Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker, February 14, 2011)

Exabytes: Documenting the ‘digital age’ and huge growth in computing capacity (Brian Vastag, Washington Post, February 10, 2011)

Rise of the digital information age (graphic, Washington Post, February 10, 2011)

Read more on the “exabytes” study (from USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism) here.


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Might there finally be TMI?

New York Times op-ed contributor Shelley Podolny weighed in today with a column [“The Digital Pileup“] on the high cost of our digital lives. Not the “we’re all becoming shallow thinkers” costs, but ones that can be measured in dollars and cents. She says 70 percent of the data in server farms is stuff that comes from . . . us.

And it’s growing like the title character in a certain 1958 Steve McQueen film.

“The current volume estimate of all electronic information is roughly 1.2 zettabytes, the amount of data that would be generated by everyone in the world posting messages on Twitter continuously for a century,” Podolny says. “That includes everything from e-mail to YouTube. More stunning: 75 percent of the information is duplicative. By 2020, experts estimate that the volume will be 44 times greater than it was in 2009. There finally may be, in fact, T.M.I.”

Just to be clear, 1.2 zettabytes is just the amount we were expected to generate just in 2010, according to research from IDC. That fact appears in “All Too Much“—part of a comprehensive report on information that The Economist published in February 2010.

The University of California at San Diego also put out a report last year called “How Much Information?” Among its findings:

In 2008, Americans consumed information for about 1.3 trillion hours, an average of almost 12 hours per day. Consumption totaled 3.6 zettabytes and 10,845 trillion words, corresponding to 100,500 words and 34 gigabytes for an average person on an average day. A zettabyte is 10 to the 21st power bytes, a million million gigabytes. These estimates are from an analysis of more than 20 different sources of information, from very old (newspapers and books) to very new (portable computer games, satellite radio, and Internet video).

The 36-page PDF breaks down the numbers in great detail. None of the information studied, by the way, was consumed at work.

Cisco says much more is coming via the mobile channel [read the story on Ars Technica]. The company’s latest Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecast says world mobile data grew by a factor of 2.6 in 2010, and will increase by a factor of 26 by 2015. That’s the year when there will be 788 million mobile-only Internet users. Some other predictions for 2015:

  • Two-thirds of the world’s mobile data traffic will be video by 2015.
  • Mobile network connection speeds will increase ten times by that year.
  • Mobile-connected tablets will produce the same amount of traffic in 2015 as the entire global mobile network in 2010.

We’re going to do our part to curtail The Blob and sign off now.

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Info overload blamed for memory loss and, uh, something else

Information overload has never had a stellar rep, but it really needs a good PR firm now. A new study has blamed it for inability to remember everything from PIN numbers to why you walked into the kitchen.

Says The Daily Mail:

According to doctors at CPS Research, a Glasgow-based clinical trials company, the syndrome is caused by hectic lives bombarded with information overload from mobile phones, BlackBerrys, TV, radio and the internet. ‘We believe there are widespread signs of the problem,’ says spokeswoman Angela Scott-Henderson. ‘Our attention spans and concentration levels are going down. It’s getting to be more common, affecting people at younger ages.’

The Scottish researchers have dubbed the problem “Busy Lifestyle Syndrome.”

But wait.  There’s more.

In a Daily Beast article called “Twittered into Paralysis,” Sharon Begley describes yet another study—from the Center for Neural Decision Making at Temple University.  It says that Facebook, Twitter and countless smartphone apps have had an unintended consequence—our overloaded brains freeze when we have to make decisions:

Trying to drink from a firehose of information has harmful cognitive effects. And nowhere are those effects clearer, and more worrying, than in our ability to make smart, creative, successful decisions.

The research should give pause to anyone addicted to incoming texts and tweets. The booming science of decision-making has shown that more information can lead to objectively poorer choices, and to choices that people come to regret. It has shown that an unconscious system guides many of our decisions, and that it can be sidelined by too much information. And it has shown that decisions requiring creativity benefit from letting the problem incubate below the level of awareness-—something that becomes ever more difficult when information never stops arriving.

It’s serious stuff and provides fresh new ammunition for anyone looking to make the business case for fighting information overload.

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