Own Worst Enemy

Own Worst Enemy

It's possible to have too much of a (supposedly) good thing. The information age is more than living up to its name. Today, good, bad, useless, unwanted and unwarranted information is available to anyone who can click a mouse or punch numbers on a phone. Sometimes information "hunts us down", but more often than not we open the door. The problem is that we can't risk not opening the door.

Peter Young tackles information overload in our feature "Under Attack". Let's face it, too much information is a problem you have to deal with if you're in the business world today. Here's one scenario that's probably familiar. Earlier this year, I attended a publisher's conference in the US. There were about 30 of us from around the world (the US, Europe, Asia, South America, and Australia); each had brought along a laptop and mobile phone. There were the requisite room phones, and the conference centre had a fully-equipped comms room (desktop PCs, fax machines and so on). There was also an impressive bank of pay phones outside our classroom.

At every break -- whether it was a meagre 10 minutes, a stretch of 30 minutes or the luxury of a full lunch hour -- we exited the room en masse to connect to the outside world. There were always two distinct groups: voice mail and e-mail (although neither was exclusive --- membership being dictated by date and time zones). Those of us from outside the US comprised the first wave, climbing over the backs of our colleagues to get to any kind of landline. Because we couldn't use our mobile phones in the US, we either made a mad dash for our rooms or jostled (a kinder and gentler description than the reality) one another for a pay phone. My US associates quickly established an outdoor courtyard as their turf. It was a bit surreal. Each person, mobile phone to ear, walked around in a tight little circle, making the group look like a team of land-locked synchronised swimmers. The e-mail addicts were by far the worst.

Seeing someone try to fire off 15-20 replies to e-mail queries on a 10-minute break is truly not a pretty sight.

But, in truth, we all suffered. Every morning and every evening all of us tended to have substantial e-mail backlogs (40-60 messages). Almost to a person, at some point or another each of us had to miss a session, cancel a meeting or forgo an evening's social plans in order to deal with information.

Obviously, there were important messages, crises that needed to be handled and questions that couldn't wait for answers. But we had to wade through a lot of chaff to get to the wheat -- more than usual, in fact. Many of the messages I got were superfluous, but I had told everyone back in Australia to keep me in the information loop while I was away, and by golly they did.

As the cartoon character Pogo once said: "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

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