QUESTION: Both of you spend a lot of time looking at information overload. What is at the root of  the problem?

ELSPETH: It used to be a letter took a long time to prepare so people were quite judicious in their communications, all the way from hand-written to type-written correspondence.

All of a sudden we have e-mail. I just think it’s the proliferation of the channels of communications and our inability to fundamentally change the way we operate with documents.

PETER: The way I like to analogize it is a lot of companies went, ‘Oh, my, we’ve got to do e-business’ and spent a fortune creating an e-business channel but didn’t create any new business. All it was was an additional cost of doing business. Likewise, a lot of the new document stuff is another channel and all we’ve done is duplicate and triplicate existing channels.

QUESTION: A lot of the surveys are telling us we are working longer and harder, yet there is more technology than ever. What gives?

PETER: Take, for example, a sales force. What I’m told is that ‘If we get eight hours a week in front of the customer, we’re lucky. Now we spend a huge amount of time on document support.’ My observation is that most sales people spend 50 per cent of their time on document-related matters.

ELSEPTH: I would echo that. The issue is with the measures of productivity. Sales-per-employee is a classic. While there has been a reduction in overall people, mostly administrative, all the administrative work is pushed on high-paid talent, and they are the ones that are being told to work longer and harder.

I was with a senior executive group this week and I asked the question: ‘What percentage of your time is actually spent thinking about growing, changing, moving forward with the organization?’ And there was hysterical laughter around the room. One guy said he spent half an hour trying to centre his envelope in the printer because there was no admin support.

QUESTION: So why is e-mail such a problem? Aren’t we all supposed to be more self-sufficient?

PETER: Guess what? The senior executives hive off all their e-mails and everything else to their admin assistant. One level down, vice-presidents and senior level managers are saying, ‘I don’t have an admin person, so I am dying.’

ELSPETH: Think of all the sales people that can’t type well. It takes them five times as long to fill out something on-line as it would a trained typist. Therein lies the problem. In theory, these people are supposed to be more productive. In reality, it actually takes longer to do things. That’s really where the problem is.

QUESTION: But people love their e-mail, don’t they?

PETER: All these new technologies can allow us to do more and do it much quicker, but it’s like anything else, until we learn to manage it better, it has a dark side to it. The single, biggest problem with e-mail? I’ve sent it to 32 people, and 31 are opening it, and saying, ‘Why the heck did I get copied on that?’ To open and read those kinds of e-mails, we are told, is even a larger problem than spamming.

ELSPETH: There are few organizational norms established around new forms of communications and it’s more of a problem now because e-mail is so easy. You also get the proliferation of, ‘I’m going to send it to everyone so I can cover my ass, and let them figure it out.’ We need to establish some norms around this communication. Do we really need to know everything? No.

QUESTION: But we do get smarter about how we use e-mail if only out of practice and experience?

ELSPETH: Yes, but everybody starts to establish their own rules. For example, I sometimes get 75 e-mails a day. What do I do? If I don’t recognize the address, I instantly delete. Is that smart? About 99 per cent of the time it works but one of these days I know I’m going to miss a big one.

PETER: E-mail is one aspect of it, there is also the document issue. Documents are where the explicit knowledge of the organization resides. So the question is how do we get smarter at accessing that knowledge. We have found that we are becoming a more and more documented world because it so easy to generate documents. We surveyed 400 senior executives and the average amount of time they spent on documents is 55 per cent of their time, and the average wasted time is 40 per cent. That’s two days a week wasted.

QUESTION: In that 40 per cent, what exactly was identified as wasting people’s time?

PETER: We’ve got several pages of reasons such as things like unnecessary e-mails. There’s also versioning. We’ve just written a book on organizational change and we had so many versions of each chapter. The fact was I’d be working on one version and Elspeth would be looking over my shoulder and say, ‘That’s not the most recent one.’ And I’ve seen government contracts where the wrong boilerplate was dropped into the document.

QUESTION: But that’s human error, not technology, when you think about it.

PETER: But you can’t isolate the hardware from the people. Technology is people. If the people can’t do it without making errors, then the technology is a challenge.

ELSPETH: My observation is that we’ve had massive advances in technology but far fewer significant advances in our own behaviour. You read all kinds of surveys about the percentage of functionality used in each piece of software, in Word, it’s about 10 per cent.

QUESTION: Is e-mail making us neurotic?

PETER: People say I hate to go away from my computer for three days because I know that when I do, there’s 120 e-mails and who knows what to do. It’s so overwhelming. It’s like companies who don’t make their numbers and the stock market kills them. It’s the same psychology. If you don’t look at it today don’t get your 40 e-mails done, it will get you tomorrow. If you’re a CEO or executive, you can’t do the job because you can’t get away from this document stuff.

ELSPETH: In many organizations, someone pushes the send button, you receive it and they can tell if you read it. Therefore, I can reasonably expect my query to be answered ASAP. In actual fact, that’s not the case, maybe I’ve just had a chance to look at and prioritize it with some other things. We have huge expectation problems about response times.

QUESTION: So what is the solution?

PETER: Less than five per cent of people we talked to have had any kind of document training. We give people MBAs for how to run businesses but nobody has done this. The other thing is a corporate-level response. Let’s explore what a strategy should be, let’s explore the dimensions of this strategy, how you would formulate it, how it clearly links to document management, to IT and to work processes. I hate to add to the plethora of strategies but this is so big we really have to have a response.

ELSPETH: Most organizations have not realized the depth of the problem. Call it whatever you will, it’s about helping individuals deal with the overload.

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