It’s grimly amusing that an academic paper titled "Individuals and Information Overload in Organizations: Is More Necessarily Better?" dates from 1980, years before anyone had heard of the Internet and only the geekiest had heard of its predecessor, the ARPAnet. What would the paper’s author, Charles A. O’reilly III, a professor at the Univ. of California-Berkeley, make of the tsunami of information that now arrives onscreen at nearly everyone’s desk every second of every minute of every day? Between e-headlines, enewsletters, RSS feeds, e-news aggregation Web sites, online information swapping, tickles from social network sites, must-read news from professional network sites, want-to-read news from hobby and interest sites, wish-I-could-ignore blurbs sailing in from Twitter-linked friends, and dozens of other web-based sources, the little Dutch boy who stuck his finger in the dike to prevent a flood looks like he got an easy job compared to the ocean of information each of us tries to hold back every day. Someone once compared trying to gather useful information from the Internet to drinking from a fire hose, but drinking from Niagara Falls is probably closer to what it feels like.
Jeremy Russell, director of communication at the National Meat Association and an admitted "early adapter" of new information tools, sums up the feelings of many executives in the industry: "I’m inundated." He chuckles wearily. "I’ve become one of those 14-year-olds you read about. I’m constantly online."
He says the good part is that he feels like he doesn’t miss anything, that he’s as connected as possible. In his position with a major industry trade association, knowing important information just a little ahead of everyone else can mean the difference between solving a problem for a member or dealing with another public crisis. Besides industry news, Russell also tracks, on a daily basis, technology, software and networking information and news – "things like cloud-computing." "But the bad thing is I don’t have the time to really do any analysis on the information," he adds. "By the time I’ve done that, six more stories or articles or headlines have arrived that I need to follow." Firewalls and spam filters help, at least a little. But Russell points out these obstacles will also sometimes keep out information that’s wanted.
Pardon our interruption
The problem is hardly limited to meat or food-industry executives. "The flood of information that swamps me daily seems to produce more pain than gain. And it’s not just the incoming tidal wave of e-mail messages and RSS feeds that causes me grief. It’s also the vast ocean of information I feel compelled to go out and explore in order to keep up in my job," wrote Paul Hemp recently in the Harvard Business Review. "Current research suggests that the surging volume of available information – and its interruption of people’s work – can adversely affect not only personal well-being but also decision making, innovation and productivity. In one study, for example, people took an average of nearly 25 minutes to return to a work task after an e-mail interruption. That’s bad news for both individuals and their organizations."
Hemp writes that the problem of information overload is actually centuries old: The development of the printing press by Gutenberg in the 15th century suddenly enabled the publication of far more information than a single person could consume in a lifetime – a revolution, indeed, in information quantity compared to what was made available annually by the manuscript-copying monasteries. "Later technologies – from carbon paper to the photocopier – made replicating existing information even easier. And once information was digitized, documents could be copied in limitless numbers at virtually no cost," he observes in the Review article.
Information overload leads to some strange behavior. Hemp quotes a 2008 survey conducted by America Online (AOL) of 4,000 e-mail users in the U.S. in which 46 percent admitted they were "hooked" on e-mail. Almost 60 percent of those surveyed said they checked e-mail in the bathroom, 15 percent checked it in church and 11 percent had hidden their e-mailchecking from a spouse or other family member.
"Most organizations unknowingly pay a high price as individuals struggle to manage the information glut. For one thing, productive time is lost as employees deal with information of limited value," Hemp writes. "In the case of e-mail, effective spam filters have reduced this problem. Still, a survey of 2,300 Intel employees revealed that people judge nearly onethird of the messages they receive to be unnecessary. Given that those same employees spend about two hours a day processing e-mail (employees surveyed received an average of 350 messages a week, executives up to 300 a day), a serious amount of time is clearly being wasted."
You and YouTube
But the challenge of information overload – or, to put it more precisely, the challenge of information-sorting – is particularly acute in the time-sensitive, operations-driven meat and poultry industry. The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture generally does not deliver the results of pre-op inspections through the Internet. The raw-material supplier that can’t fill an order doesn’t spread the news with an e-headline. A new customer bid doesn’t come through Yahoo or Bing. The meat and poultry industry operates, more than most industries, in a real-time present, not in the past or in the future. It is a business requiring minute-by-minute, handson management, decision-making and operational expertise. Spending even a couple of minutes perusing the news could divert attention away from a situation that needs immediate attention.
Executive routines in the industry reveal the time-stress. A survey conducted this year by Meat&Poultry shows that more than one-third of those surveyed, 34 percent, spend less than one business hour per day online – and that’s for all online activities, including time spent on company Intranets and on password-protected food-safety and labor-management sites, that not just reading the news. Just 27 percent spend one-to-two business hours per day online – which means that more than 60 percent of those surveyed spend two hours or less per day online.
But among those who do spend a little time online each day, what do they read? Eighty-three percent say they read industry-related news and feature stories, while 54 percent say they read general news (including sports, entertainment and financial news). Just 20 percent read industryrelated blogs, and only 19 percent watch industry-related videos, not including Webinars and Webcasts, which attract 17 percent of those surveyed. Almost no one, it seems, has time at the office for listening to podcasts – just 10 percent of those surveyed said they do. The percentages for visiting a video, social or professional networking site in the past week go from 24 percent (YouTube) down to four percent (Plaxo). Thirty-eight percent say they hadn’t visited any such site in the past week.
Does it matter where it comes from?
Russell says he sees some generational differences in online use by NMA members. Unsurprisingly, younger executives who tend to be more computer-literate than their older peers more easily integrate online use into a daily routine. The association’s weekly newsletter, "Lean Trimmings," is now distributed electronically, but as a service to older and emeritus members NMA still prints out and mails about 200 hard copies. "It’s a courtesy to them. Some of them still don’t have computers at home and will never get one," comments the NMA communications director. "More often, though, what’s happening at some companies is someone prints out the online newsletter and distributes a hard copy. People have personal styles and preferences when it comes to reading material."
At the American Meat Institute, one staff member sorts through daily news from dozens of sources, including industry newsletters, the Washington Post, New York Times, other association newsletters, scientific journals and press releases, among others, to compile a daily list of 10 or 12 key news stories for the day, which is forwarded to AMI executives. This kind of news-aggregating happens a lot at meat companies, says Russell.
"You’ve almost got to have someone on staff now who does this kind of sorting and weeding out," he comments. "At our association, that’s me. The dilemma for top executives is that they can’t afford not to know something, but they don’t have the time to read everything."
He notes that "RSS feeds" – "really simple syndication" or, sometimes, "rich site summary" are great. "The more that information is targeted to my specific needs, the thinner the slice, the more helpful it is." At the same time, "Exclusivity equals inconvenience. It’s as simple as that. If a piece of information is available from one source and one source only, chances are I’m either going to miss it in all the other stuff I get or I’m not going to get it at all. But if a story is picked up by other sources or by blogs, I’m definitely going to see it."
This begs the question: How important is the source of the information? Is an original source better than a one- or two-steps-removed source or even a blog? "What it really comes down to is this: I need the information," Russell says. "And I don’t care where it comes from." He quickly adds, however, that there have been times when he’s read something important in a blog but there’s no site or link for the original source and no clues that he could use to search for the original source on his own. "That’s really frustrating, but at this point there’s really not much that can be done about it. If it’s important information I’m going to do the best I can with it."
He notes, however, that in his experience with "Lean Trimmings," maintaining reader loyalty in an age of thundering, deafening information noise means providing readers with information they can’t readily find elsewhere. "It’s the unique news that we create that they wait for," he emphasizes.
Provider and consumer
Being an information provider as well as a consumer puts him in an interesting position. Even as Russell struggles to surf the ocean of information tidally sweeping into his computer every minute, he works on ways to make NMA’s information and news more accessible to more members. When he joined the association in 1997, NMA had a single Web site, www.nmaonline.org, which is still the organization’s main Internet home. The newsletter was printed and mailed; it was not until 2000 that Lean Trimmings was published electronically. But even then, NMA’s Internet Service Provider (ISP) at the time was hooked.net, which tended to get caught in company spam filters. "Spam filters are still our number-one problem with distribution, though it has diminished somewhat," he says. "I realized that at some companies, their ISP would create a spam filter on its own that the company didn’t even know about. When we switched to a headline-only format earlier this year, it was a way to get around spam filters." Readers can click on a weekly headline menu, which arrives by e-mail, and choose to read "Lean Trimmings" in either an HTML or PDF format. The association also out-sourced its Web design and programming, and added two new in-house-administered Web sites, meatexpo.org and nmascholarship.org, to provide information about NMA’s suppliers exhibition and scholarship program.
NMA, like other industry associations, also has a password-protected section on its Web site for members only. Russell says he has mixed feelings about it and about password-protected information in general. "To be honest, it’s only useful for information that people are really desperate for. It’s a premium service."
Tom Super, who manages online information services at AMI, says that even though some industry executives may feel overwhelmed by the abundance of information pouring in to their digital In-boxes every day, the revolution has come and nothing will ever be the same again. "We recently issued our new Economic Impact Study, and we did it digitally," he says. "Ten years ago, we would’ve printed it up in a binder and mailed it out, and to be honest, it probably would’ve sat on a shelf. Now it’s an interactive online study and people are really taking advantage of it."
Paul Hemp in the Harvard Business Review states that in any case, companies and organizations have more to grapple with than simple time-management when it comes to information overload – there is, he says, an ethical dimension. "One person’s urgent e-mail request for information, of unquestioned value to the sender, usually comes at a significant price for the interrupted recipient, for whom the request may be neither urgent nor important… In looking for ways to reduce the burden of information overload, an organization must strive to balance sender benefits against recipient costs," he writes. "And leaders need to ensure that a solution doesn’t simply shift the burden from one group to another, whose shouldering of it will come at a net cost to the organization."
Steve Bjerklie is M&P’s East Coast correspondent, based in Franconia, N.H. He has worked as a journalist covering the meat and poultry processing industry for more than 25 years.