Email is the main cause of information overload at work today. It prevents us from being able to make good decisions and tackle important tasks according to priority.
I used to believe this. In fact, I have written about it here before, and I am currently working on a graduate thesis to investigate this claim.
But I am beginning to think I might be wrong. Preliminary findings of my research show that the picture may be a bit more complicated. Examining journal articles that span the last 30 years, I have found that the perceived cause of information overload at work has shifted over time. For example, during the late 1980s and early 1990s, email and groupware were the primary perceived causes of information overload. Remember, this was the period when email was just finding its way into organizations, and it significantly changed the way we communicated at work. Later on, once email had become well-established, the perceived causes of overload extended to include other sources. While email remained one of the primary causes of overload, web and Internet content, as well as "digital information" such as electronic documents and application data now shared the overload stage. The ease by which information was proliferated had created new channels of overload. At least one recent study from Stanford and Boston University seems to agree with my preliminary findings.
And it is just getting worse. With people leaving the office and connecting to work via cloud services using iPads and smartphones, the deluge of information no longer stops at the office gates; rather it follows us everywhere we go, 24/7. The impact of overload is profound because it has been shown to create stress, decrease job satisfaction, and impair decision making.
With this backdrop of overload, perhaps it’s time to look at activity streams again, this time in a new light. For the uninitiated, an activity stream is an automatically generated list of recent events about a person, group, or topic. With activity streams, you typically "follow" people to stay up to date with their activities. If you use Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn, you know what I am talking about.
With activity streams, you subscribe only to content you deem important, so the chance of being overloaded by information is vastly reduced. For example, with activity streams you are spared being copied on endless email threads that clog up your inbox, making it harder to focus on those messages that deserve your immediate attention. Secondly, activity streams do not demand the same kind of response as email, since activity stream information is provided as updates as opposed to "personalized" messages that warrant a response.
Based on my preliminary findings, I would venture to say that activity streams are part of the solution, but they are also potentially part of a new problem as well. Because to be effective, activity streams not only need to reduce the amount of email we process, they need to reveal information that is most important to us, at the right time, and in the right place. Otherwise, they will just morph into "streams of unconsciousness"—endless lists of unrelated events that increase the amount of information to process and make it harder to find important stuff. Again, think of Twitter. Even if you only follow tens of people on Twitter, it is virtually impossible to piece together a coherent picture of what each one is doing without applying filters or using third-party tools to organize the updates.
As with many other aspects of our consumer experience, social activity streams are also starting to appear in the workplace. Niche companies like Jive Software and Socialcast provide activity stream applications for enterprise social networks. And the big players like IBM, Microsoft, and Salesforce have also gotten into the game; Microsoft with its recent acquisition of Yammer, and Salesforce with its acquisition of Chatter. The same challenges we have at home are starting to follow us to the office. And since the office can be anywhere in today’s mobile enterprise, we face the additional challenges of integrating (or separating) our home and work activity streams.
This is the brave new world that I will be exploring this coming week at the E2.0 Conference in Boston. In a talk entitled, "Can Activity Streams Free Us From The Office? The Real Scoop on Mobile Activity Streams," I will examine some of the causes of information overload and propose some new directions and guidelines for creating practical activity streams; those that prioritize information so important events rise to the top.
Author David Lavenda is a product strategy executive at an innovative high-tech company focused on user experience. He also does academic research on information overload in organizations and he is an international scholar for the Society for the History of Technology. He tweets from @dlavenda.
[Image: Flickr user Oarranzli]