Starved for Attention (Navigating overload in the Information Age)

Info, info everywhere but how am I to think? With apologies to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, we are sailing on a virtual sea of information yet too seldom have the right information to make the best decisions. How is this possible, when the keys to the knowledge of the world are in your hand and coming to a pair of eyeglasses near you?

Every day most of us are attempting to drive through a torrential downpour of information. Instead of slowing down to better navigate, we are pressing ever harder on the accelerator, certain that more faster is better and smarter. Evidence is mounting that suggests not only is more information not always better, it is starting to deteriorate the quality and timeliness of our decision making.

Just ask employees who are finding it harder and harder to get their boss’s attention long enough to explain a problem, suggest a solution or even answer a direct question. Forget a short reply by email. You are lucky if your audience even reads beyond the sender line. How many times have you gotten an immediate reply to an email you just sent, only to have the sender ask you the question you just answered?

In the past two decades, information in the business environment has gone well beyond overload straight into super-saturation.

Bill Jensen, CEO of the Jensen Group, notes that on average, the information inside most companies is doubling every 500 days. An early pioneer on the effects of information overload in the workplace, Jensen says the greatest competitive challenge for employees is not “out there” among other competitors, it is actually getting the time and attention of coworkers and bosses.

Michael Rudnick, Principal, Rudnick Consulting LLC, and an expert on strategic communication technology, maintains that while the tide is slowly turning, managers still spend more time writing emails than talking with their people. The noise of too much information affects everyone. “It’s easy to get distracted and run down a rathole, or be seduced by the constant pinging of automatic notifications from your smartphone.”

The misperception of effectiveness

Most leaders would want say they have a firm handle on managing all the information that comes at them. They may have systems in place to channel, handle and dispense with information but even the best process can fail to discern between the important and the vitally important. Roger D’Aprix, a principal of D’Aprix & Company and author of several seminal books on employee communication, notes that leaders used to only have to worry about getting the unvarnished truth. “Today, it’s searching for that truth in a haystack of information.”

At the same time, employees feel increasingly less able to break through to their overwhelmed managers. D’Aprix notes the complaint is getting louder. “When

you add to that problem the burden of travel and distributed workplaces, more and more employees lack good direction. That leads to inefficiencies and lost productivity,” not to mention disillusionment and frustration, a costly problem for employers trying to retain talented individuals.

Human behavior is at the heart of at least one part of the solution. Dr. Herbert A. Simon, who won a Nobel prize in economics for his theories about the way people make decisions, challenged classic economic arguments that maintained people would always make rational choices in order to come up with the best financial decisions. Dr. Simon argued it was actually impossible for people to base decisions on rational choices because they are faced with too many choices and too little time to analyze all the options, so they choose the first option that is “good enough.”

Dr. Simon argued it was actually impossible for people to base decisions on rational choices because they are faced with too many choices and too little time to analyze all the options, so they choose the first option that is “good enough.”

What’s most notable about this observation is when he made it — more than 35 years ago, at least 15 years before the internet created the information superhighway. So, if information overload was a problem before the internet, what can we possibly do about it now?

The answer lies in three principles:

  • the importance of focusing on what matters;
  • letting technology do what it does best; and
  • using judgment to make good decisions.

Can I have your attention?

Jensen suggests far too many business leaders try to solve the focus problem with an Information Age version of command and control, “Reports have to be a certain way. Meetings need to be run a certain way.” The structure may create consistency for the leader, he says, but it requires everyone under them to spend more time formatting and complying than thinking and solving problems.

At the root is leadership style, D’Aprix says, and our openness to constantly update assumptions and beliefs about the world around us. “Autocratic leaders operate from a different set of assumptions about people than participative leaders.” Command and control leaders attempt to manage the flood of information by focusing on how information is packaged for their consumption.

In contrast, participative leaders are more focused on what information really matters and look to their team of expert employees to help constantly discern between what is relevant and irrelevant. “The task is to ensure that one’s assumptions and beliefs are as true to shifting realities as possible. That means constant examination and updating. In my opinion, it’s the only practical human solution to information overload,” D’Aprix says.

Innovation at the speed of light

The need for organizing vast amounts of information has spawned technology innovation for years, but until recently most technology has been about sorting versus analyzing information according to importance. All that is changing as developers focus on contextually-driven content, Rudnick says.

Contextually-driven content is created by filters that account for various personal attributes of the user, such as one’s current physical location, age, interests, proximity to other friends and shopping preferences. “This filtering allows technology to better target information for the user, thereby requiring less effort from the user and reducing overload,” Rudnick explains.

“Interestingly, contextual content is really just a more dynamic approach to the age-old idea of target marketing. Only in today’s world, instead of pushing messages and content to people based on attributes that change infrequently (like a home address), content is being pushed to users based on continuously changing attributes.”

While some may cringe at the thought of Big Data painting their portrait so precisely through behavioral algorithms, Rudnick sees this as the future and a huge opportunity to rise above information saturation. “Automated contextual content is far beyond the old paradigm of search engines where users search for words or phrase matches and the search engine returns results. We now have the ability to do spoken language searches that provide answers to questions in ordinary language.” Even more fascinating is the innovation around anticipatory dialogue. Rudnick notes that both Google and Apple are developing programs that anticipate follow up questions. “This involves not only trying to predict our next inquiry, but doing much of the thinking for us, asking questions we wouldn’t have asked and then answering them.”

While some may cringe at the thought of Big Data painting their portrait so precisely through behavioral algorithms, Rudnick sees this as the future and a huge opportunity to rise above information saturation.

On a tactical level, Rudnick suggests letting technology do as much as it is able to. “For example, Microsoft’s Office 365 cloud email integrates seamlessly with Sky Drive and Office 2013. So when I go to save a file, the default location is in the cloud on Sky Drive. This means that I am totally untied from the hardware I am using – I can create a document on a desk PC, edit it on a tablet, share it via a smartphone and re-edit it on a laptop. And I never wonder where I put the most recent version.” This level of convenience frees up time and attention to focus on decisions that technology can’t make for us.

The “good versus great” distinction of decisions

There is no question technology has made us more productive, efficient and connected. But is it helping us make better decisions? Has human nature changed since Dr. Simon observed we, being human, would settle for the first “good enough” option, instead of searching for the best solution, when faced with too much information?

Perhaps knowing we are overwhelmed with information is the first step toward recovery, as they say. “The sign of too much information is when we begin to long for the truth of any situation or problem, when confusion takes over and leads to an inability to make clear decisions or draw clear conclusions.” D’Aprix suggests.

D’Aprix maintains technology cannot replace sound judgment built from experience, strategic clarity and realism. As long as our assumptions are based in an accurate assessment of the current situation, we have an internal compass for decision-making and sorting out choices.

Using that compass requires self-awareness, however. In this area, D’Aprix sounds a warning. “I believe that technology and information overload are deteriorating our ability to think clearly and to relate to one another on a human level,” he says. “Evolution has equipped us to be effective social animals through the use of language, facial expressions, and body language as well as tone of voice. We lose much of that in transferring our communications solely to technical channels. In a confusing corporate world that has led us to value speed and information delivery over clarity and reflection. It’s a sad loss.”

Ultimately, no technology can substitute for judgment and listening to your instincts, D’Aprix says. “Some would term this phenomenon as the ‘courage of our convictions.’”

Rudnick agrees. “At some point people need to turn off their devices and just focus.”

Returning high touch to high tech

On a recent Saturday morning at a local bagel shop, I noticed a table full of 10 year olds wearing soccer jerseys. Their parents were at the next table sipping coffee.

What was remarkable about this group was the sound coming from the kids: nothing. Each one was hunched over a personal device or passing one back and forth in a small group. The only sound was an occasional yelp or groan in response to some event that had just occurred in the tiny world on the tiny screen four inches from their face.

 

As the internet generation edges closer to joining the world of work, how will communication be redefined? For a generation that interchanges texting with talking and face-booking with hanging out with friends, personal connection is fleeting, multi-dimensional and surprisingly void of actual human contact. This trend will only magnify what Dr. Simon called society’s “poverty of attention.”

D’Aprix refers to John Naisbitt’s epic work, Megatrends for the earliest glimpse of the essential connection between high tech and high touch. “I believe that at some point there will be a backlash to impersonal technology and its capacity to deliver information that exceeds our ability to consume it,” D’Aprix comments. “At that point, I hope that there will be a renaissance in the value and importance of face-to-face communication, which, interestingly, is the ultimate social medium and the one for which we’ve been programmed.”

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By Tracy McKee. This article was originally published in May 2013 by Strategic Communications Magazine.

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