The Greek gods who sentenced Sisyphus to an eternity of rollin' that boulder up the mountain, watchin' it roll back to earth and then startin' all over again knew their Advanced Mental Torture 1.01. There are few things more poisonous than having to waste great slabs of time on profitless and ultimately ineffectual hard yakka.
So perhaps some god has taken a serious set against business and business people, because with more than half a million e-mails deluging inboxes every few seconds, managing information glut is rapidly becoming a Sisyphean task. Consider this statistic and you'll know why: research firm IDC estimates more than 1.4 trillion e-mail messages were sent from North American businesses in 2001, up from 40 billion in 1995.
Recent studies show employees now spend anywhere from 49 minutes to four hours a day on e-mail, much of it jokes or junk, with the amount of time spent continuing to rise. Analysts variously reckon 33 per cent of e-mail is useless, that the average Aussie CEO gets at least 60 e-mails a day, that one-third of business e-mails are not answered within 24 hours, that 66 per cent of companies have an electronic junk mail - or spam - problem, and that 38 per cent of consumers view spam and privacy as a greater threat than viruses. We know this, because the analysts are so fond of e-mailing to tell us so.
And all those daily urgings to increase your penis size, make a fortune working from home, share multimillion dollar profits from Nigeria, get fantastic deals on toner cartridges and improve your spamming techniques are having an affect on productivity, corporate liability, morale and even users' feelings about e-mail. These days, we get work done between e-mails. We're all at risk of falling to what psychologist David Lewis calls "information fatigue syndrome", with symptoms including exhaustion, anxiety, memory failure and shortened attention span. "Having too much information can be as dangerous as having too little," Lewis says.
In 1998 Reuters Business Information surveyed 1313 business managers from the UK, the US, Australia, Hong Kong and Singapore, to find one in four were suffering ill-health related to the sheer volume of information received, with 62 per cent of Australian business managers reporting information overload was making them ill. Reuters found information overload makes managers work late and take work home, cancel social activities and suffer exhaustion and tension in the workplace. Managers felt forced to collect information simply to stay competitive or to justify their decisions, a pressure that was costing business lost time searching for information that frequently cost more than its value.
"All that sending and receiving, responding and deleting is taking an enormous toll on workplace productivity," says Nancy Flynn, author of The ePolicy Handbook: Designing and Implementing Effective E-mail, Internet, and Software Policies and Writing Effective E-Mail, and executive director of The ePolicy Institute (www.epolicyinstitute.com).
"The real problem is that executives have singularly failed to understand the impact of document proliferation and management on what's acknowledged to be the most valuable and scarcest of corporate resources - their time, and the time of managers and other key professionals," says Peter Richardson, professor of Strategic Management Queen's University School of Business, Ontario. "Information technology has not only failed to live up to the hollow promise of a paperless office, it has actually created a business world in which document diversity has become the curse of professional productivity."
Other risks also abound, and are growing. Elron Software's 1999 E-Mail Abuse Study showed 86 per cent of employees send and receive personal e-mail at work; 60 per cent of employees send or receive adult-oriented e-mail at work; and 55 per cent of employees send or receive politically incorrect or otherwise offensive e-mail at work. Such personal e-mail use in a business context exposes employers to a range of risks: from workplace lawsuits through to lost productivity to e-security breaches and e-sabotage.
And spam is growing, like some malign tumour on the business corpus. The Coalition Against Unsolicited Bulk E-mail (CAUBE.AU) says the amount of spam received increased sixfold between 2000 and 2001 and is doubling every four-and-a-half months. US anti-spam firm Brightmail estimated a year ago that spam constituted 10 per cent of all e-mail. That figure has jumped to 20 per cent.
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