Departments - November/December 2009

The Insider

Dealing With Overload
Finding Solutions That Work

By Catherine Eberlein Pfister

here are days when it may be oh so tempting to delete every e-mail, throw out the PDA or turn off and hide the cell phone in the closet. Accidentally, of course. As this issue's story on information overload (see page 24) conveys, there are no quick or easy answers to solve the problems associated with it. In fact, my research didn't uncover anything that resembled a multi-disciplined process to use in finding solutions. Not that there aren't myriad resources on the topic to be found. Or myriad sources on the topic's subcategories like managing e-mail, reducing clutter, information overload syndrome, time management and so on and so on.

Without an overall process to hang on to, it's tough to keep focused. So here are some simple suggestions to consider (and please send me your ideas!).

If you need more information to build awareness of information overload: Start with the Information Overload Research Group at It brings together some of the best minds to study and provide solutions. By my count there are about 60 members of the organization (all listed on the site) including Basex, Microsoft, Xerox, IBM, several universities and consultants. The group's online resources are growing, and many members provide thoughtful content on their individual sites.

If you want to determine and understand the financial impact of the information overload problem in your organization: Basex ( has created a free, Web-based "Information Overload Calculator" to help companies understand their individual financial exposure. It's available at and walks you through the steps.

If you want to assess the overload impact on managers and employees: Look at your corporate culture and climate to determine information overload red flags. That might be done through a combination of manager observations, team meetings, employee satisfaction or pulse surveys. Consider the following:

  • How do people describe the corporate climate when it comes to gathering information, processing information, reporting information?
  • Are your employees coming in early, working through lunch hours, staying late, sending e-mail at 3 a.m. over the weekend? Why are they doing so? What drives the behavior?
  • Do employees feel pressure to always be available, to always respond to every piece of information they receive, even if it's not important? Is your workplace full of distractions that drive people to their limits? What are they?
  • What management expectations feed employee behavior? Have these expectations affected a manager's ability to effectively coach and engage workers? Or to help employees focus on how their work affects the company, living the vision and reaching corporate goals?
  • Do employees need help learning techniques to help them focus, manage time, reduce stress, get rid of clutter, and handle e-mail and other types of information?
  • What issues recur most often? Which ones create the largest financial drain? Which problems affect productivity as well as employee satisfaction? Do they have to do with technology, lack of skill training (like time- or information-management skills), or current management thinking or practices?