Information overload vs. filter failure


I'm a big fan of Nathan Zeldes' blog. Aside from his seminal piece on "Infomania," he's a clear-eyed observer of the email hell in which most corporate employees find themselves trapped. Recently, he rebutted Clay Shirky's argument (here and here) that "It's not information overload. It's filter failure." Shirky's maintains that (since Gutenberg at least) there's always been more information than any individual could possibly process -- but it's not a problem, because as long as reading it all isn't mandatory, who cares? But Zeldes rejects that argument. As he says,

It is not that there’s a lot of information; it is that there’s a lot more information that we are expected to read than we have time to read it in. It’s about the dissonance between that requirement and our ability to comply with it, and this requirement was not there in Alexandria or in Gutenberg’s Europe: you were free to read only what you wanted to and had time for. This is what has changed, not just the filtering....there is an expectation (express or implied) that you must go through all the mail in your Inbox.

I think Zeldes is exactly correct in this analysis. And to his credit, he points out that along with the obvious reasons for the growth of email (it's free, easy, and instant), there are powerful cultural reasons as well: CYA, publish or perish, mistrust, escalation, and so on.

Okay, these aren't exactly Copernican insights here. So what?

Well, as Jamie Flinchbaugh constantly reminds me in regards to A3s, getting the problem statement right is at least half the battle. And I think that the problem statement, "I/We have too much email" isn't very good. After all, how do you define "too much"?

Instead, I think it's worth asking questions like "Why is so much communication done via email?" Or, picking up on Zeldes' point, "Why are we expected to read all that mail?" These questions lead to much more interesting -- and fruitful -- conversations about corporate culture, service level agreements, allocation of authority, etc.

In an earlier post, I talked about how Peter Drucker viewed an excess of meetings as a sign of a dysfunctional organization. He wrote that

Too many meetings always bespeak poor structure of jobs and the wrong organizational components. . . if people in an organization find themselves in meetings a quarter of their time or more — there is time-wasting malorganization.

Too many meetings signify that work that should be in one job or in one component is spread over several jobs or several components. They signify that responsibility is diffused and information is not addressed to the people that need it.

I wonder if you could say the same thing about too much email. Yes, when you're collaborating with teams located in different offices around the world email is a incredibly useful communication tool. But lord knows that there are plenty of people, teams, and companies that don't have that convenient excuse.

The root causes behind our biblical email plague are myriad -- and almost certainly don't involve something we can't fix, like a vengeful god. Asking questions that reveal the root causes can help you take appropriate countermeasures. It's a better approach than blaming email on "filter failure," or meekly accepting the worsening status quo.

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