After years of naming a product or person of the year, Basex Inc. decided to name “information overload” as problem of the year for 2007.
The named primary culprit of information overload is email. Email is responsible for millions of lost work hours annually. Paradoxically, email also saves millions of would be lost hours too. Countless telephone calls and letters are replaced with quickly composed and instantly delivered email messages.
The computer is arguably the only tool ever developed for work which can waste as much resource as it saves. Not many clothing workers had their fellow garment workers in stitches with joke articles of clothing when the sewing machine replaced hand stitching.  Lumberjacks didn’t waste their days as cut ups in the joke wood department when the chainsaw supplanted the timber saw.  Computers, however, beg for mindless interaction.
In 1974 I was given the rarest of privileges. A member of Sears management who just completed his training on the new Friden computer system took me to the specially air conditioned and highly secured computer room.  After explaining to me the wonderful “data” this noisy thing would produce for Sears, he told me that “these things are really amazing and can be a lot of fun. Watch this!” He then typed F-U-C-K on the keyboard. The thing hummed and then bit  into the 3′ wide 100 mile long paper stack. Out popped a sheet of greenbar with the words formed by tiny dots “no FUCK in pool”. This guy, upper Sears management, was delighted to get the $100 million machine to print “FUCK”. Ron was cutting edge. This was years before online porn or off-color email. Still, he had found a way to waste time in spite of the limited computing power of the Friden room sized computer.
More than 30 years later technology has improved well beyond Ron’s vision of the computer’s potential for comic relief. Fortunately, we have achieved the paperless joke.
Abuse of the company’s computing resources and payroll hours is an expensive problem easily corrected. All IT departments have the capability to monitor any individual’s computer activity. Let it be known. All use of the company’s computer on the company’s time is property of the company. If a rule is violated, publish the violation with the offender’s name in the company newsletter or as an announcement at the next staff meeting. Watch the abuse drop to immeasurable levels. I had an 8th grade English teacher that would read intercepted notes aloud to the class. “Who likes who” notes were not worth the risk of being exposed.
There is another part of this problem more difficult to fix. Communication skills are lacking. I often must exchange several emails to get an answer to a simple question. Often, a poorly framed reply is a reflection of bad attitude. Sometimes it’s just poor communication. Poor email communication looks like this:
Me: Have you received my order and when will it ship?
Them: Yes, your order has been received.
Me: When will it ship?
Them: We usually ship pretty fast after the order is processed.
Me: Can you give me some idea of when the order will ship?
Them: We’re pretty busy right now so I can’t guarantee you anything.
Me: You can’t provide an approximate time frame?
Them: It might go out tomorrow but I can’t promise that.
Me: Then it will go out within a couple of days?
Them: I told you, I can’t promise a ship date.
Me: What can you promise? A week? A month? (irritated)
Them: We’ll ship as soon as we can.
Experience has taught me that after purchase service will be horrible if communication goes like this before the order ships. I now am wise enough to cancel my order if I can’t get a straight answer about shipment.
Correct email transaction:
Me: Have you received my order and when will it ship?
Them: Hi! Thank you for your order. It is being processed and will ship via UPS within 4 working days. If there is any reason for delay beyond that time, I will contact you. A tracking number will be sent to you when your order is shipped. Thank you again for your business.
The better email is obviously better. But if you monitored some of the email your people send out you might be surprised to learn that some training is in order. And please, don’t try to fix poor communication skills with canned replies. You hired him, it’s your responsibility now to train him to take care of your customers. If you don’t get that, you’re in big trouble.
Chris Reich, Author of TeachU’s Business Talk Blog