Too much information is a problem, and it’s getting worse. 

Information overload hampers our ability to focus on what matters and inhibits productivity. The driver of much of the overload is the overuse of email as the solution to all workplace communication challenges. Inboxes overflow with requests and status updates, as well as work orders, proposal and contracts. While not the most effective tool for every scenario, email has become the de facto work communications tool. Next generation social tools such as Yammer and Jive were developed to create a new work dynamic, one that reduces information overload. How is that working out?

I recently spoke with Adam Pisoni, co-founder of Yammer [now part of Microsoft] as well as co-founder of Responsive.org, an organization that aims to “create a fundamental shift in the way we work and organize in the 21st Century,” to get his take on the impact of information overload and what can be done to rein it in.

Rowing Hard Doesn't Help if the Boat's Facing the Wrong Way

Lavenda: The amount of information people need to process in a day (at work and at home) is increasing at an incredible rate. How can work be organized to reduce overload and how can technology help? Is holacracy the answer?

Pisoni: There are two dimensions to this question.

First, how is information overload impacted by technology? I don’t believe that increasing someone’s access to information necessarily leads to overload. Most of us have access to more information than has ever existed in the history of the world, but we don’t have to read it all the time. Technology can help us get to the right information at the right time so that we don’t have to sort through it all. This type of technology is getting quite good in our personal lives. At work however, we’re still in the dark ages. Not only do we not have access to most of the information inside our organizations, there’s little intelligence to help sort through that information that exists. (By looking at the consumer experience,) you can imagine how much better it could be in the future.

Second, how is information overload impacted by management structures? I recently read about two US military leaders from early American history. One was tasked with expanding westward across the North American continent, and the other was tasked to sail to Japan to see “what could be done in the Far East.” The leader sent to Japan was given complete freedom to act since there was no way to communicate with the leaders back home. He could make trade deals or even attack if he wanted. On the other hand, the general marching across the plains was given daily instructions on exactly what to do.

This is precisely how email is used by business leaders to manage workers on a daily basis. Increased communication usually leads to decreased autonomy. The problem is, instead of working, most people spend their time collecting information for their bosses or colleagues, or waiting for instructions on how to act. In this sense, a lack of autonomy leads to information overload. 

On the other hand, self-organizing systems give more agency to individuals and groups so they spend less time sending status reports or waiting for instructions and more time acting. Faster decision making means smaller business cycles can be completed in shorter periods of time, so more can be learned faster. So, yes, I do think systems like Holacracy can dramatically help with information overload.

Lavenda: At Yammer, you developed an entirely new way for people to communicate around work. What did you learn from that experience?

Pisoni: The biggest lesson [I learned at Yammer] was realizing that there is an unavoidable, natural tension between efficiency and predictability vs. responsiveness in many organizations today. Historically, organizations maintained a hierarchical organizational chart, engaged in long-term planning, and held narrowly-defined roles and specializations in order to drive efficiency, in a world that didn’t change very much. However, with the increased speed of information sharing and an increased pace of change, this focus on efficiency is claiming a fatal price. 

Former UCLA professor Kenichi Ohmae said that, “rowing harder doesn’t help if the boat is headed in the wrong direction.”  It’s not just that we need new tactics to deal with the pace of change, we need new mindsets. And this is what makes it so hard for companies to change even when faced with better options. Today, before a worker makes a decision, they will consider, “will this drive efficiency or hurt it? Will this increase or decrease predictability?” 

For example, getting customer feedback faster by releasing products more frequently sounds amazing, but how can it be done in a way that maintains both predictability and efficiency? That’s an impossible scenario. More than anything else, leaders need to adjust their own mental models and mindsets as well as those of their employees.

Lavenda: Besides tools to support communications and engagement, what do we have to change about work and the work environment to enable people to be productive? What is the role of technology in this?

Pisoni: For companies to make sure more people have the right information to make good decisions, they need better systems to increase transparency and surface the right information to the right people at the right time. On top of that, they need better coordination systems to reduce the friction for resources, so resources can be moved quickly to wherever they are needed most. 

As an analogy, hotels do not need software to manage reservations. They could do this with a spreadsheet and a small staff. But AirBnB can’t operate without software because there are too many participants to coordinate. Appropriate software can both coordinate many participants and help recommend the right resources to the right people. These coordination systems are far more effective than relying on human, hierarchical channels to channel resources and priorities.

Lavenda: After the Yammer sale to Microsoft, you stayed on during the period when Microsoft was undergoing a change from a packaged software company to a cloud-based services company. What did you learn about what it takes to integrate a company to be successful in a global setting?

Pisoni: I feel very grateful to have been at Microsoft during that particular period. It’s one thing to theorize about how to change a large organization, it’s another to live through it. Going back to what I said before, I think more than anything else I learned about the importance of mindset and mental models. It’s not enough for a leader to know where to go. The hard part is helping people see the world in the right way in order to reach their goals. That involves doing things which are often scary and painful, like getting people to see new perspectives, change priorities and processes faster than before, and communicate to a level of employee who was previously "out of the loop." It’s a messy process that takes tremendous courage and empathy.

Lavenda: The toughest challenge for adopting any new method of work is that it requires changing people’s behavior. What is your top secret for getting people to adopt new ways of working?

Pisoni: My top secret is “rotation.” Most people try and talk people into changing their mindsets, but changing mindsets is almost impossible without changing someone’s environment. That means taking people out of an environment that reinforces old behavior and forcibly putting them into an uncomfortable one that reinforces new behavior. Even in the most modern companies, we’re starting to see much more of this. For example, I’ve seen situations where new employees spend 3-6 months working on many different teams, and others where existing employees are forced to work in a different group for a month each year. Perhaps the most important — but most difficult — to rotate are leaders. We have a strong desire for stability in our leaders, but this comes at a cost.

Lavenda What is the role of technology ecosystems in getting the future of work right? How should technology vendors come together; i.e. how can they work streamline work in the future?

Pisoni There’s no easy answer here. Whether we like it or not, much of why we have so many companies pushing so hard is because they are responding to competition. Most of the time that benefits us, but sometimes it makes sense that companies should be working together. More tradeoffs.