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Information overload? (1 of 3)

The other day a friend of mine, Steve MacAlpine, who is a digital guru (check out his blog stevemacalpine.com) sent me a fabulous article which appeared in the highly regarded McKinsey Quarterly in January 2011 titled Recovering from Information overload by Derek Dean & Caroline Webb. It is definitely worth a read! Given the prevalence of the problem of information overload and being always “connected” professionals – accountants, lawyers, management consultants, architects, engineers and others need to be aware of the dangers of being continually “on” Although the article, given its McKinsey genesis, speaks mostly about CEO’s and other senior executives – the important lessons contained within need to be learned and heeded by all.

For all the benefits of the information technology and communications revolution, it has a well-known dark side: information overload and its close cousin, attention fragmentation. These scourges hit CEOs and their colleagues in the C-suite particularly hard because senior executives so badly need uninterrupted time to synthesize information from many different sources, reflect on its implications for the organization, apply judgment, make trade-offs, and arrive at good decisions.

The importance of reserving chunks of time for reflection, and the difficulty of doing so, have been themes in management writing for decades. Look no further than Peter Drucker’s 1967 classic, The Effective Executive, which emphasized that “most of the tasks of the executive require, for minimum effectiveness, a fairly large quantum of time.” Drucker’s solutions for fragmented executives—reserve large blocks of time on your calendar, don’t answer the phone, and return calls in short bursts once or twice a day—sound remarkably like the ones offered up by today’s time- and information-management experts.

Yet they are devilishly difficult to implement, and getting more so all the time. Every challenge recounted by Drucker in 1967 remains today: an unceasing rhythm of daily meetings, a relentless expectation of travel to connect with customers and far-f lung reaches of the organization, an inordinate number of opportunities to represent the company at dinners and events. Add to these challenges a torrent of e-mail, huge volumes of other information, and an expanding variety of means—from the ever-present telephone to blogs, tweets, and social networks—through which executives can connect with their organizations and customers, and you have a recipe for exhaustion. Many senior executives literally have two overlapping workdays: the one that is formally programmed in their diaries and the one “before, after, and in-between,” when they disjointedly attempt to grab spare moments with their laptops or smart phones, multitasking in a vain effort to keep pace with the information flowing toward them. Better solutions exist, and they aren’t rocket science.

Plug into the next post to read more!

All my best,

James E