Right-sizing Information to Fit Your Brain

info_overloadI have been reading a number of articles dealing with the age old problem of information overload. Seth Godin blogged about Getting meta and asked if information about information is now more important than the actual content we’re seeking. It is in a tag and search society!

 Tom Davenport purported in the Harvard Business Review that we are “info-satisficing” – being satisfied with sacrificing quality. I have examined this “good enough” quandary in my own blog.

Are we sacrificing quality because there is just too much information in too many channels to possibly read let alone absorb? I still receive six print magazine subscriptions (I just can’t move to nationalgeographic.com; I like the glossy photos) on top of my very active Google Reader account, Twitter stream, Facebook and YouTube channels I follow. I can’t seem to get on any other social medium right now or my head will explode.

Because of weather conditions, I settled for Skyping family instead of traveling to see them over the holiday. Instead of scheduling my time around when Modern Family comes on, I go to Hulu and watch it at my leisure. I can’t even find time to DVR the show!

I don’t know if we are sacrificing quality or just fitting the medium and level of content to the time we have.  Would I have preferred to see family in person for the holiday than on my LCD? Yes. But, Mother Nature had a different plan.  I can control what I receive, what I subscribe to and what I read. I used to feel under pressure to keep up on every medium but I don’t anymore.

Information is widely available but we have the power to filter and do so in the easiest way ever…thanks to technology advances. So, are we getting what we need? Are we sacrificing quality? Are we “overloaded”?

The answer is probably “yes” but I find that I am more selective than I used to be when I entered the socialsphere. I don’t accept every friend invite on Facebook. I don’t follow 5,000 people on Twitter. I don’t have RSS feeds from 500 blogs.

I pick and choose what I want carefully and I keep my six magazine subscriptions to ensure I have in-depth articles to not only spark an immediate thought in my brain but to have real, developed arguments and facts to consider. I still buy crime novels in paper because while Kindle is available, I’m not there yet. But, that’s just me.

Should We Be “Social” at Work?

Companies are aware of and understand they must embrace social media externally with their clients but also internally to engage their employees and inspire collaboration. However, some leaders are still wary of social media as a time-waster, and, despite the numerous companies we hear about everyday using social media, many companies have still not adopted it for legal and productivity reasons. They think their staff members will constantly be updating their Facebook status or tweeting and re-tweeting items all day long. But, what about using these tools or like tools behind the firewall for business purposes?

The fact is people want to communicate this way, and it’s not just for the younger generations. Seniors are the fastest growing population on Facebook. Whether you allow access to “Facebook” or you implement a Facebook-like application behind your firewall, this is an efficient, easy-to-use and engaging way to get people to share what they are working on, report on their availability for other projects and connect and build relationships with people inside the company. We used to encourage connecting with people at a training class or through the company softball team. This is no different; it just involves a computer or Blackberry to do the connecting.

Here are five steps to ensure “social” isn’t viewed as non-productive “socializing”:

  1. Don’t call your internal People Profiles tool “Facebook”; call it “PeopleFinder”, “Connections”, “BluePages” (if you’re IBM). These may sounds similar but don’t conjure the “Facebook” image necessarily. Or, if you implement NewsGator Social Sites, call them “communities” instead. Brand it something that doesn’t imply these tools are a time-waster.
  2. Don’t necessarily call these tools “social media” when pitching them to senior leadership. Call them “collaboration tools”, “team builders”, or, better yet, “efficiency enablers”.
  3. Establish business purposes for why tools like this are needed. A common one I’ve heard is: “The younger generations expect it, and if we want to attract talent we need to have these tools.” While this might be true, I have found that this isn’t always compelling enough as leaders often ask: “What about the 75% of our population that isn’t 23 years old?” Good reasons include: Understanding a person’s area of expertise and experience leads to better staffing of projects; being able to tell when someone is or isn’t available instantly saves time in making decisions or getting answers; connecting people to people speeds up problem solving and helps new people establish relationships faster thus decreasing their ramp-up time.
  4. Try to get one leader on your side. Determine who would be the most willing to not only approve and champion the effort but be one of the first people with a profile.
  5. To help with legal and leadership hesitations, create a decent policy around using these tools and ensure there will be a dedicated activity monitor. A Good Policy Example: IBM’s Social Computing Guidelines

So, What Do I Use This Tool For Again?

So, let me get this straight. I use a wiki to create project agendas but a SharePoint site to store my project management documents. I go to YouTube for our corporate videos and Flickr to contribute to our “fun” employee photo library. Then, I jump to the discussion forums to share and comment on ideas but if I want to quickly ask a question of my colleagues, I go to Yammer. I should read and respond to blogs on various topics and share my expertise. Oh, then, I have to update my profile (should I update LinkedIn and Facebook too?). And, what do I use Instant Messenger for again? Help!

Yep. Another victim of tool fatigue.

Sure. You can provide a link farm on your Intranet so people don’t have to remember the URLs of each tool but each interface looks different and people will struggle to remember all the cutesy brand names for each point solution you have. You could also provide a quick reference guide – a When to Use What cheat sheet. This can work reasonably well.

But, I really think we need to define objectives as to why we have all of these tools. There is something to trying them out to see what sticks. I whole-heartedly advocate for that but, in the long run, consolidation and streamlining become important to support the efficiencies these tools were invented to create in the first place.

Your employees need you to ask yourself these questions:

  • Are people comfortable with other people changing their work? Then, by all means, implement wikis. If version control and levels of security are critical, then don’t.
  • Do you have to have Yammer AND Discussion Forums? No! Choose one. Are threaded discussions necessary to keep replies nested under the original discussion or are quick quips and limiting people to 140 characters essential?
  • Is there one system for storing documents and then set appropriate security settings? I hope the answer is yes but I know how difficult this can be.  Strive for this!  Don’t make people guess which system to store their documents in.
  • Can profiles, blogs and status updates be the same solution? Yes!There are tools like Jive and NewsGator Social Sites that offer this.
  • Integration, integration, integration. There is a reason SharePoint is so popular. It may not have everything but there are plug-ins that complement the interface for just about any need.
  • Try and limit to two solutions – One for storing my work as an individual and on teams, and one for information about me specifically…that’s it.

Keep it simple for the people who have to work. After all, these tools are supposed to help makes things easier not confuse people.