Complaining about an overflowing email inbox has become something of a business cliché, and the most frequently quoted example of information overload amongst knowledge workers. Not so long ago, the main culprit of this was email spam, but as spam filtering has become more effective, less and less of it reaches our inbox. In fact, one could argue that spam filters are now somewhat over-zealous, and a bigger problem than an inbox full of spam is the regularity of “false positives” where a valid message doesn’t reach the recipient.
But even with the spam successfully filtered, our inboxes are still too full. A lot of this can be characterised as Bacn – sort of “spam you asked for”. If you were serious about keeping your inbox clean, it would be relatively easy to unsubscribe from all the bacn. OK, so you probably haven’t done that – but you could, so it seems unfair on the sender to count that as information overload.
What this leaves are messages that were deliberately sent to you, presumably because the sender needed an answer from you, or felt that you needed to see the content.
Whether this remaining non-spam, non-bacn traffic represents too much information depends a lot on the type of organisation you work for, and your role within it. Many businesses clearly do believe there is far too much of this email traffic. Earlier this month, a statement from Ferrari summarized the problem very eloquently:
The injudicious sending of emails with dozens of recipients often on subjects with no relevance to most of the latter is one of the main causes of time wastage and inefficiency in the average working day in business.
The other dimension of information overload that is not discussed so often is the proliferation of other forms of messaging. I receive business-related messages via email, Skype, SMS, phone, LinkedIn, Twitter and enterprise social networks. The irony is that these alternative communication channels have often been chosen as an antidote for email’s perceived problems, yet are actually exacerbating the problem by fragmenting discussions and knowledge. While many concur that email is the problem, there is much less agreement over the solution – Ferrari’s exhortation to ‘talk more and write less’ appears an admirable but somewhat flawed response to email overload.
A common, but rather perplexing, claim some companies make is that they are addressing their email problems by moving to instant messaging via Skype, Yahoo Messenger, or other similar service. Yes, this may reduce the number of messages in your email inbox, but does it really make the participants in the discussion more productive? Instant messaging is inherently more disruptive, demanding (as the name suggests) an instant response. It is also more ephemeral and disposable, making it hard to retain and retrieve knowledge from previous conversations.
There are undoubtedly certain types of discussions that benefit from instant messaging, but that doesn’t mean all email can be moved to this channel. With such a wide range of different communication channels available to the modern knowledge worker, it becomes increasingly important to know how to pick the right channel for each type of discussion.
This sort of overload is further exacerbated by the growth of push notifications from mobile apps. I have lost count of how many apps on my Android phone want to pop up and tell me things. I even get push notifications from an app that tells me which rubbish bin I should put out for collection on which day. Useful, yes, but not something I need distracting from whatever I was doing at the time. Alerting you immediately to important events is clearly very valuable, but as more and more apps do it, we end up with notification overload as well.
So we need to remember that reducing the number of messages in your email inbox simply by moving them into other communication tools is not the objective of the Business Communication Revolution. Reducing the total number of messages may not be the goal either – receiving too little information is just as bad as receiving too much. It is a question of balance – making sure we are actively alerted to information we need to see, while enabling us to access other information we want to see. This balance between push and pull-based information flows is the subject of the next article in this series.