Chartered Management Institute: Combatting techno-phobia

Dame Lynne Brindley, CEO of the British Library, argues that radical action is required to ensure managers are not held hostage by information anxiety.

by Dame Lynne Brindley
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

It doesn't take long nowadays for conversations among managers to turn to the blessings and curses of permanent connectivity. Thanks to smartphones and near-ubiquitous Wi-Fi, the boundaries between our personal and work lives are becoming ever more blurred.

Add to this the ceaseless bombardment of emails, voicemails and texts; numerous social networking and 'friend' requests; news alerts, management reports and industry updates - not to mention an ever-expanding host of apps we simply can't live without. The information we consume has increased in sheer volume just as the channels by which we receive it have multiplied and proliferated.

The feeling of overload that results is not a new predicament. Back in 1984, a decade before most of us had even heard of email, Jacob Palme, a Swedish computer scientist, said: 'If used by many people (email can) cause severe information overload problems...

People get too many messages, which they do not have time to read... (and) the really important messages are difficult to find. In the future, when we get larger and larger message systems, and these systems get more and more interconnected, this will be a problem for almost all users of these systems.'

Rarely can a statement about the impact of a technology have proven so prescient.

Email is of course just the tip of the iceberg. According to one estimate, we now produce the same amount of information in a single week as we did in the whole of 2002- some 23 billion gigabytes. In parallel, we've seen the growth of a new industry devoted to addressing 'information anxiety' - the pervasive feeling that the most relevant, most timely nugget of information is always just another search away.

This isn't simply a problem for the older generation. Research commissioned by the British Library and JISC into the research habits of the current cohort of doctoral students - the so-called 'Generation Y' - indicates that while younger people may seem at ease with new technology, they in fact lack a range of digital literacy skills. With such a panoply of information freely available, the ability to assess bias and reliability, for example, becomes ever more critical - but is by no means a given among younger researchers.

As we've moved from a historical environment of information scarcity to the new reality of an information glut, the skills that used to be the preserve of the information professional have now migrated into the core competencies of any management professional. The developing crossover between my world and management as a discipline was one of the reasons the British Library and the Chartered Management Institute partnered on last year's inaugural Management Book of the Year Awards.

By identifying the best of the latest thinking in the field we hope to provide managers with the quality items that should be at the very top of their reading list - and I am looking forward to the announcement of this year's shortlisted authors at the CMI's national conference on 20 October.

More immediately, there are simple measures anyone can adopt to regain control. Being tethered to a BlackBerry myself, I'm only too aware that devoting only partial attention to the matter in hand is not a good idea. Multi-tasking is all very well, but I regularly like to disconnect completely, so I can focus on the important rather than the urgent.

My instinct as an information professional to retain an exhaustive archive of digital correspondence and documentation can be pretty hard to resist. However, there are few more stress-busting activities than subjecting my email and documents to a thorough cleansing. Absolutely everything gets sorted into folders or deleted, without equivocation. It brings a renewed sense of control and wellbeing and is best done as a scheduled activity in its own right.

Similarly, the Web 2.0 world requires each of us to develop our own filtering rulebook.

I keep a critical eye on the contents of the favourites tab on my browser. The distraction of interesting but not informing sites is a bane of the internet age and a tightly focused roster of regular online haunts will help you stay productive. The same applies to newsletters, mailing lists and social networking - regularly pressing the unsubscribe button will help to avoid the feeling you're getting swamped. The disadvantage of mobile 'not-spots' can also be viewed as precious time for creative thinking. Regularly weed the RSS feeds and only dip your toes in the Twitter river, or there's a real risk of being overwhelmed.

The idea that appeals to me most is people power; that curation might be taking over from search - human experts assessing the quality of information, the reliability of the source and extracting and packaging the most relevant information. We need to be able to trust where our information comes from and identify what adds the most value - whether it is monetised or not. Combining this social model with more sophisticated and tailored algorithmic search would represent a smart combination to help us get the better of our information deluge.

CV: Dame Lynne Brindley has been chief executive of the British Library since 2000, leading a major modernisation programme to ensure the library remains relevant in the 21st century. She has just been appointed as a non-executive board member of Ofcom. She is active in international and national bodies concerning media, information initiatives, digital infrastructure, libraries and cultural and public sector leadership.

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