Information overload overwhelms nearly half of Canadian execs

Daily corporate correspondence, e-mail, voicemail, SMS messages, online video, business stats and graphs — the typical Canadian executive is deluged by a sea of information, according to recent survey.

Quite often this avalanche of data doesn’t enhance, but curtails their effectiveness, the survey released by Toronto-based SAS Canada suggests.

SAS Canada is the Canadian arm of analytics software maker SAS Institute Inc. headquartered in Cary, N.C.

While 96 per cent of Canadian execs say information access is vital to their business decision process, 47 per cent admit to being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of data they receive.   

Only 23 per cent believe information they get is useful.

The data deluge problem has been reported on for years. But only recently has a Canada-specific survey been published on how information overload is affecting Canadian business decision makers, said Cameron Dow, vice-president for marketing at SAS Canada.

The SAS survey, conducted in March this year, queried 1,022 senior managers.

Respondents were from small and mid-sized, as well as large Canadian organizations in the private and public sectors.

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“It surprised us that with the technology available to us today, so many executives still struggle with managing information,” Dow said.

He said it’s worth noting that executives in firms of every size are saying “a lot of the information they receive is just noise.”

Quality information

So how does one filter out the noise?

The first step, according to a Canadian expert, is to understand what constitutes quality information.

Business leaders need information that’s easy to understand, accurate, and timely, according to Jean-François Ouellet, associate professor, Department of Marketing at the University of Montreal.  

4 quick tips on getting rid of information clutter

If any of these pre-requisites is missing, the system fails, he said. “If you can’t understand the information, it really doesn’t matter how accurate or timely it is. In the end, it won’t have much business value.”  

The survey revealed information overload is more of a challenge for public sector executives than those in the private sector (53 versus 43 per cent).

Reasons include stifling organizational politics in many public sector outfits that prevent data use for competitive advantage and inadequate expenditure on business analytics, the survey said.

Tech – not a key competitive enabler

Dow of SAS also said he was surprised to find that Canadian executives ranked information technology (IT) near the bottom of the pile of competitive advantage enablers.

High on the “enablers” list was: quality of products and services (63 per cent); customer focus (55 per cent); skilled workforce (50 per cent); strong management team (41 per cent).

Only 30 per cent believed IT was an enabler.

Several other metrics revealed that respondents weren’t satisfied with how their outfits accessed and used data.

For instance, 53 per cent said data is their organization’s most under-utilized asset, while 81 per cent said their staff could do a better job of sharing information.

Seventy-six per cent believed they would make better informed business decisions if they were equipped with the right analytics tools. Less than half (44 per cent) said their company was spending enough on business analytics technology

“In fairness to IT, I think the real issue here is not IT’s failure but rather the need to align business and IT,” Dow said.

The SAS executive said business analytics can be a vital tool in enabling decision makers to sift through data. “I think we need to move away from traditional methods of arriving at decisions, which relied mainly on gut feel.”

He said business analytics tools enable users to make better and faster decisions based on accurate and consistent information.  

For example, Dow said, rather than simply relying on previous year’s experiences and “business instincts”, a clothes retailer can use business analytics to determine what styles, colours, sizes and quantity of merchandize they should stock for a given season.

A good analytics tool will factor in several metrics, such as demographics, customer buying behaviour, store locations and more and then provide a predictive model executives can use to guide decisions, said Dow.

He said the result would be less over- or under-stocking, inventories that reflect buyer tastes and demands, and higher revenues.

Finance is the department that most relies on business analytics, according to survey respondents (25 per cent). That’s followed by operations and manufacturing (14 per cent), sales (13 per cent) and marketing/advertising (12 per cent).

Information indigestion

An efficiency consultant agrees with the SAS Canada survey findings.

Most Canadian executives suffer from “information indigestion,” according to Baha Habashy, a partner at Integrity+Consulting, a Markham, Ont.-based effectiveness management consulting group.

“Have you noticed that right after a very heavy dinner you feel sluggish or even ill. That’s what happening to our executives who are assaulted by data on all fronts.”

Habashy said information, by itself, has no value until it’s “digested”.

“Information thought about or evaluated is turned into knowledge,” he said. “And when people apply this knowledge to real world situations, it becomes wisdom.”  

He lamented that modern decision makers hardly have any time to evaluate data thrown at them. “Executives are reduced to acting and reacting to information and so they are prone to make hasty decisions and mistakes.”

The effectiveness coach has the following advice for harried managers and department heads:

1. Filter information based on your role – Executives should accurately determine their role in the organization, and then sift through information and spend time only on those matters relevant to that role. “Many executives make the mistake of letting their title define their role. They end up extending their area of responsibility beyond what is necessary.”  

2. Don’t allow your Inbox to define your role – An extension of number 1. Many people think because an item enters their Inbox they have to deal with it. “More than half of your e-mail can probably be deleted without unfortunate repercussions,” Habashy said.

3. Add more “think time” to your day – Set aside time to evaluate what you have on your plate. Map out your day. Avoid rushing from one task to another.

4. Use time blocking –“Batch-process” the information you receive and the time you spend on various items, according to Habashy. For example, set aside 15 minutes at the beginning of the day to write down what you intend to do. Block 30 minutes to read e-mails or answer voice messages. Set aside one hour to process information (think time) you have. Allocate specific blocks of time for each task you have set.

While these steps are simple, they’re also very effective, Habashy said.

“An executive who came to me for help could cut his e-mail by 30 per cent and saved an extra hour each day by following these suggestions.”  

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