V3.co.uk: Office workers are now faced with email, instant messaging, and other communications sources such as social networks, phone calls and voicemail. How are they meant to cope with all these information sources without being overwhelmed?
Nikos Drakos: It's true there are lots more communications channels, and people are becoming more comfortable with using them, some make it much easier to send out a message or update than others, such as an internal micro-blogging system some companies have.
There are more channels and more people using them, and there is a downside to things like email where it is easy for anyone to reach anyone else.
If you look closely, there are some differences that can point to solutions in future. A lot of the channels that are real-time, like the phone, versus those that are persistent, are different. When it comes to real-time, it’s an interrupt – you have to stop and deal with it, so it’s potentially more damaging for attention.
However, it is kind of self-limiting – phone calls are point-to-point; they are mostly one-to-one, so the potential for spreading, touching a lot of people that don’t need to be involved is lower.
So is there a better way to deal with calls other than hiding behind
The way to deal with it largely comes down to culture and personal discipline. Personal discipline, meaning you just have to block it out if you are busy. On the culture side, it's more to do with education, best practices, making it clear what is and what is not acceptable when it comes to real-time interruption.
A lot of real-time interruptions can be converted into persistent chats that can be stored somewhere, so they end up being part of the rest of the stream of messages. Voicemail can be easily converted to email as an attachment you can find later, for example.
But aren't many people already snowed under with the volume of email
they get everyday?
Yes, either email or from social networks, if you get a lot of RSS feeds from a number of places, and there are a lot of systems that deliver status messages that people may or may not be interested in.
To begin to understand what's going on, the multiplication of channels is kind of a red herring; it’s real, but the contribution to overload is that there are now more and possibly easier ways to send messages to lots of people with little effort, such as blogging.
Ultimately, what you have is a lot of messages that are generated by people and systems that are reaching lots of participants through different queues.
This isn’t a problem, as it is possible already to convert from one queue to another, so your email can become a universal queue aggregating messages.
It appears problematic because people say, "Oh I have to go and check all of these things", but it's a solvable problem because you can choose a universal client to see them.
The big deal is that there's a lot of them. People subscribe to a lot of
things like distribution lists, alerts, because they may need that information
in the future. They don’t need to if this information is archived somewhere and
they can easily go and find it.
Is there anything workers can do about this themselves?
If the company or owner of the work environment is not doing something, to capture and organise this information, then the only thing the ordinary employee can do is to set up their own filter.
You put a rule in your inbox so that if a message is not from your manager, if it's not from your team, if it doesn't have your name in the 'to' field, it is routed to a low priority folder that you can check every now and then. It’s not ideal, but there's not much else you can do from a personal perspective.
The solution is filtering, but the other problem with information overload is not that there are so many messages that come to you, what frustrates people is that to deal with every message they need to go hunting for all the information they need in order to put the message in context.
You need to be able to jump off from the message easily into a persistent environment that contains the relevant context, and end users are beginning to solve this problem with tools like wikis and group spaces for documents and status information.
Does that mean organisations need to provide tools to address these
For a lot of activities that happen regularly, and that the company can identify, it should be done at that level. Ultimately, you need some tools for individuals to be able to create this kind of shared persistent context.
When you look at some of the tools becoming available, Novell's recent Pulse announcement and Google Wave are examples, you can combine the transient messages around something with something which is persistent through which you can refer to it and which many people can work on.
Will there be tools to effectively address these issues in
If you combine the transient messages with persistent context and filtering, which is already happening, things will get better. In the meantime, the way to deal with it, like I said earlier, is personal discipline and culture.
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