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Workers can get overloaded with too much information

Columnist Dave Conrad says too many emails and notes can bog down workers trying to determine what is and isn't important to know.

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Dear Dave,

The problem at my company is not a lack of communication, it is way too much communication. Every day and all day we receive e-mails and memos that do not apply to me and my team. Plus, we do not understand a great deal of the information we receive any way. How can we let management know they are swamping us with messages that are really wasting our and their time without our being considered whiners?

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— T

Dear T,

You are referring to what is called “information overload.” This information stampede muddles the decision-making process, resulting in a poor, or even no, decision being made. There should be a balance of getting the information you should get and not getting irrelevant information intended for others.

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In fairness, your management is probably trying to make sure that communication and information flow is not a problem. However, in their quest to do so, they overcompensate, and everybody gets everything. Simply, today’s workers are in the midst of an information overload epidemic.

One communication expert estimates that the average knowledge worker must process, consciously or subconsciously, the equivalent of 174 newspapers of information every day. They may be up on the news of the day, but they definitely may lose the ability to recognize and realize what are the most important and urgent things they must know and do. The cost of information overload is that people get distracted and make more errors. As a result, employees accomplish less, and strategic priorities take a backseat to small, irrelevant, attention-grabbing tasks.

I see that you have two different problems going on: One problem is that you receive worthless information, and you spend a great deal of time sorting through it. And the other problem is that you cannot interpret what the information is and means … even if it may be intended for you to receive. Let’s take a look at these core problems that are defined below.

Problem one

First, I assume you have meetings of some kind and have a chance to discuss with trusted colleagues what you see and hear. I also assume that you have interaction with your management. I would ask your superiors for relevancy and purpose in the information you are receiving.

But please understand, I am not saying you should wait until a “formal” meeting rolls around to determine if the information you are receiving is what you should be getting. If something appears to be quite important (more important than the usual flow and types of messages) I would contact your manager right away to determine just what it is and how it applies to you.

Basically, I suggest that you “train your boss” to be aware that there is information coming at you in rapid succession and that you struggle to determine if it is urgent, and if it is something you need to know and must take action on right away. Any good manager would be happy to clarify things, because she or he does not want you to make mistakes. And if management does not take action on the problem, they will look bad to their bosses.

I believe that if your management clearly understands that time may be wasted, confusion is being created, and workers are being distracted from their work – because the documents and memos are coming at them nonstop — they will see the need to sort out whom should get what information and when. Nothing speaks to [effective] management more than lost productivity.

Problem two

My response to this dilemma pretty much ties into my response to question one: You must ask management for clarity and meaning regarding the information you receive, because you certainly do not want to misunderstand and misinterpret information that may be quite meaningful to your productivity. Simply, if you are not able to digest the information you receive, this may stifle the volume and quality of your work.

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Assuming that you and your coworkers do, in fact, continually come to management with a need for clarity regarding the information received; management should realize the nature and extent of the vagueness of the information being sent out. If they see a sea of faces looking confused and scratching their heads, any good manager would address the problem and get their team on the right track.

When I managed salespeople, I never wanted them to flounder and waste time because they were confused about elaborate plans and even new technology that came with charts and language that no one can completely understand. Simplicity should be the goal when writing messages and when determining if they are readable.

In summary, communication rules, but useless, ambiguous information — that may cause information overload — costs valuable time and money.

Contact Dave Conrad with questions or comments at conradd@augsburg.edu . Conrad is an associate professor of business at Augsburg University in Rochester.

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