Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Effectively Fighting Information Overload - Dow Jones Webinar: Some reflection...

For those who know me well in the information world, I have something of a fixation with the concept of 'information overload', having studied its effects on legal information professionals and PSLs (Professional Support Lawyers) in great depth for my MSc dissertation. So when I had the opportunity to take part in this free webinar offered by the new Dow Jones Knowledge Professionals Alliance, you can imagine my excitement....!

The session was hosted by Jonathan Spira, chief Analyst of BASEX, a research firm focusing on the issues faced by companies in what he terms today's 'knowledge economy'.

A common definition of information overload is 'an excess of information that results in loss of ability to make decisions, process information and prioritise tasks'. My interest in this concept stems from a realisation that just through being trained information professionals, we are not immune to the crippling effects of overload. The only difference is that we may be more aware of it and consequently be better placed to counteract it.

Jonathan began by telling us how a number of high profile individuals feel about the problems they face as a result of too much information. Peter Miles, EVP of BMW described it as 'a scourge on modern day society', with other executives from companies like IBM also maintaining that the volume of information they receive on a daily basis, through emails, instant messages and phonecalls effectively means that they are prevented from getting to the information which is relevant.

A survey conducted by Dow Jones revealed  that one of the most common problems faced by knowledge professionals (or information professionals if you prefer) is keeping up with the various channels of e-news that feed into them from various sources. Indeed this was my number one reason for experiencing information overload, therefore it's interesting to see that I am not alone in this feeling. Jonathan discussed the fact that some 10-15 years ago, we would never have foreseen this, because there was great excitement over the plethora of information out there - we revelled in the fact that we could send an email to hundreds of people all at once, if we so desired. But today it is a double edged sword. The almost constant stream of information, be it from emails, instant messages (apparently many big firms now have an Instant Message system), RSS feeds, Twitter and other social media, means that sometimes we are forced to sift through so much useless, irrelevant information, that we end up missing what is valuable. Furthermore, the feeling that we never have enough time to keep on top of it all can lead to frustration and/or fear, that we are unable to do our jobs effectively and that we are never quite working to our full potential.

A very interesting little fact that Jonathan also told us is that a 30 second interruption means you take 5 minutes to get back to where you were. It doesn't sound like much until you think about all those little 30 second interruptions caused by emails, telephone calls, messages on Twitter etc. In a nutshell, the 'recovery time' from an interruption is generally up to 10-20 times the duration of the interruption!!

Now I realise as I write this that it does seem like I am completely going against Thing 4 in our cpd23 challenge, which was of course to get to grips with things like RSS feeds and Twitter and so on. So please don't think I am discouraging this!! These tools play a valid part in my keeping up with current awareness on behalf of my fee earners, so I certainly won't be stopping any of them - but what is definitely important, is to develop skills to manage all the information that these tools provide, and NOT  to let the information manage you....

Which leads us nicely onto the last part of the session, which was looking at ways to combat information overload. One thing Jonathan highlighted was to be cautious in one's use of the 'reply all' button on emails, as very often, we include people on the distribution list who have no real need to be party to a particular email, which in turn contributes to other's overload.

He also introduced us to the concept of 'BLUF' - Bottom Line Up Front' - and said that this is a useful acronym to bear in mind when writing emails. In general, people often don't read beyond the 2nd paragraph of an email - not very good for those of us who keep all the juicy info to the 3rd, 4th and 5th paragraphs! But by following BLUF, we can ensure that people get an immediate idea of what the email is going to cover, and so they can decide within a matter of seconds if it's relevant to them. So it basically means spelling out that the email is going to cover X, Y and Z.

Finally another solution offered was one that, in theory, should be second nature to information professionals like ourselves, and that is, to control our search results - use BOOLEAN logic operators to narrow our search results to a more manageable number. Jonathan said that the majority of queries run on Google use no form of Boolean logic whatsoever, and instead are just natural language questions. This is where information professionals are trained to manipulate the huge amount of information out there more effectively than the average searcher.

All in all, it was a very interesting session and it definitely served to remind me why I have such an interest in examining the effects of information overload on my profession. As always, any thoughts/experiences on this topic are more than welcome, not just from legal information specialists, but from anyone who has encountered this in their working life...

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