“Did you see my post on Yammer?”
“I didn’t see your comments; didn’t you see my email?”
“I knew you wouldn’t see my email, so I sent you a text message … and a WhatsApp message”
“I was waiting for your call; didn’t you see my LinkedIn update?”
It’s only Monday, but I am already behind. I periodically checked email over the weekend. I thought I could short-circuit the stress of dealing with too many messages on Monday morning, but checking email is not enough anymore. Because while I kept my Inbox empty, I didn't keep up with LinkedIn, Twitter and Yammer … and I missed some important developments.
Too much of the talk about information overload revolves around email. Overload is a much larger problem. And the reason is simple: with an email Inbox that is splitting at the seams, important messages are starting to fall between the cracks. People are starting to realize that with so much stuff piling up in your Inbox, they can get your attention using less "polluted" communications channels.
For example, many organizations already have discussion boards like Yammer and messaging services like Lync or Chatter. Many people also use public services like LinkedIn or Twitter to share business information. So while messages through these channels may not generate more mail (although they often do), they do require you to keep pace with the all their updates.
Just how many places do you need to go to stay up to date? On a regular day, I will check four email accounts, plus Twitter, LinkedIn, Yammer, Lync, Skype, Slideshare, ResearchGate, WhatsApp, text messages and occasionally Facebook. And of course it’s not enough to check these sites once a day, I need to continuously cycle them during the day. Sure, most of these services generate email notifications when something new pops up, but these just add to the noise, not detract from it. Because now I have to click through to multiple apps to see whether the updates are really important or not.
What can we do?
What Doesn’t Work?
Here are a few ideas that don’t work: Looking for a new, unpolluted channel for important information may be a temporary, stop-gap measure. But new channels quickly get clogged as soon as folks figure out that they can reach people this way. And expecting people to reduce their email sending is naïve. While many organizations provide email training for employees, expecting the burden of good behavior to be passed to the email sender is just wishful thinking.
To deal with technology that makes it too easy to overload our colleagues with information requires equally powerful technology. And a number of promising starts are beginning to appear.
Popular email services like Gmail and Outlook provide automated filtering capabilities. Gmail Inbox “helps you get back to what matters,” and Clutter from Microsoft Outlook “uses machine learning to de-clutter your inbox by moving lower priority messages out of your way and into a new Clutter folder .… Clutter removes distractions so you can focus on what matters most.”
A number of third-party email filter add-ons are also available. I haven’t found any that do a great job yet. While they reduce the high-water mark of the inbox, they all require periodic maintenance to make sure nothing important slipped through the cracks.
But, as we know, email is only one source of information overload. The question remains, “How can we deal with all the sources of information?”
One way to keep up is to continuously toggle between apps for LinkedIn, Yammer, Twitter, Lync and Chatter. There are apps for all these services on the desktop as well as all popular mobile devices. But this constant toggling is not only a hassle and a source of stress, it’s a surefire way to miss important information.
Aggregating multiple services into a single app is an important way to reduce information overload. Apps like Hootsuite and Cloze create a single screen experience from social networks and information sources like Twitter, Google Plus, Facebook, LinkedIn and others. These apps create one place to go to keep current with updates.
The downside is that individual information streams now become a single torrent of messages to wade through. Messages from different services are usually unrelated. Making sense of it all requires a fair amount of manual filtering and organizing information. Plus, you need to invest in ongoing maintenance to keep the information organized as your needs and interests change.
So yes, aggregation is good, but something more is needed. That something more might just be "context."
Context acts as a filter, using situational information to surface relevant information at the right time. What’s great about context is that it can often be applied without user intervention. While it’s finding some implementations in the consumer space, there isn’t much to talk about in the workplace just yet.
Location is probably the most popular form of context used today to filter information. For example, Google Now highlights nearby events on your smartphone, using the phone’s geolocation. Shopping apps like Red Laser also use location to provide competitive price information from nearby retailers, when checking prices in a store. In the workplace, location-based services could provide workers access to relevant operational manuals when on-site (vs. off-premises), but there is a long way to go before this kind of localized-access becomes commonplace.
Other forms of context are also useful. People with whom we have interacted and topics in which I have expressed interest are other forms of context. Amazon and other online shopping sites use contextual topics extensively for consumers; for example to display items similar to what you have viewed in the past. In the workplace, Microsoft is exploiting worker interactions on Office 365 using its Office Graph and its Delve app to "show you information based on what you're working on and what's trending around you."
Automated methods for dealing with information overload are still in their infancy and we can expect to see many clever and interesting new developments. Motion sensors in smartphones represent one interesting way to filter information using context. When cross-referenced with location and the actions being performed on a smartphone, the possibilities for surfacing relevant information are almost endless.
The bottom line is that information overload isn’t going anywhere soon. In the mean time, tell your friends to stop sending so much mail, keep checking your mail on Sunday night, and try to keep up. Help is on the way.