Under Six Virtual Feet

· information management

We work in a wired world. Those who have been in the office workplace for a number of years know that times have changed, dramatically. In days gone by our desks were cluttered with “circ files” that contained volumes of paper – originals, hard to read carbon copies, photos, plans, maps and all sorts of ephemera. Then, we would have thought the notion of dealing with hundreds of pages of text daily as unmanageable: how on earth could one cover, let alone absorb such a volume? But these are the volumes that now pass daily on our screens. We are busy as never before.

Employees at all levels are complaining of “e-mail burnout” as light speed memos pop up on their screens with dismaying frequency. A manager recently remarked: “I’m getting so much e-mail I can’t get my work done.”  What’s happening here?

Certainly the pace of work is faster than it was. There is more to do, less time to do it in, and less people to share the load. But there are other factors. In using the new technologies we are often guided  by practices more appropriate in a hard copy world than that of bits and bytes. When a manager in olden times (10 years ago) circulated a report, she would carefully consider the distribution list. Now it is much easier just to forward it to everyone. But there is a positive factor at play here too: we are much more open and collaborative in our work practices than we used to be. The challenge is deciding between keeping people informed, and burdening everyone. Is this something people consider carefully before they hit the “send” button? Maybe sometimes. But I don’t think many managers and information providers have significantly changed their practices in the face of these new conditions.

Information distributors rarely précis volumous materials or circulate only the critical elements of reports and correspondence (editing out irrelevant bumpf). This can easily degenerate to a mail function with no value add. On the receiving end workers have not yet learned to “scan and kill”, rather, one diligently “reads and saves.” We are all information hoarders, not yet comfortable with the notion of extracting the critical bits and tearing up the balance. Though we ought to put the archival onus on info generators we often don’t. Thus we have hard drives stacked to the scuppers with multiple duplicates of memos, mail, reports and graphics. And we constantly lobby our masters for bigger computer memories to hold all this stuff.

Information management, as a workstation skill, demands new sorting abilities and tools: scanning incoming material and making appropriate action decisions.  Some of these steps can be fully automated. The Internet for years has allowed “kill files” that reject mail from certain organizations or individuals. Users also can pre-select the information sources they deem most relevant. But in our offices, everyone gets everything, and everything has equal importance. With no apparent assigned content values, our hard copy tradition and our reluctance to scan and delete, it is no wonder we are all suffering from overload. Solutions, however, will take significant change in the way we work, and the risks we are prepared to take.

As to “not getting one’s job done,” that is really another issue.  In the office of the past communications were “easier.” We had corridors, watercoolers and <gasp> smoke breaks. We chatted informally. We put notices up on bulletin boards for events of importance. We communicated quickly and effectively because we used our full suite of communications tools: language, inflection, even posture to get messages across (and even to indicate that we were not receiving messages). Now much of our communication happens electronically, using a tool very ill equipped to get complex messages communicated in just a few words. Where a gesture might have telegraphed volumes in the past, we now need several pages to say we don’t like a new project.

We seem to be stuck with electronic media. We don’t have many watercoolers, and smoke breaks are now furtive events held in sheltered doorways at -30c degrees. I think we need to find new ways of sending,  receiving and managing information. Our jobs depend on us being able to process, quickly and effectively, greater and greater amounts of data and information to produce “knowledge” that has clear business use. The technology industry may help somewhat. But the greatest changes must be made by us, in the way we work. And possibly, in the way we assimilate and learn. These are not minor challenges. But they will have to be met head on if we are to dig ourselves out from the crushing burden of computer based communications.

[This essay appeared in a 1997 edition of the Journal of the Financial Management Institute of Canada]

David G. Jones B.A., M.A.

Principal – Shibumi Management Canada


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