Execs Carry Some Responsibility for Data Deluge -- or at Least Their Response to It

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The Business Impact of Big Data

Many business executives want more information than ever, even though they're already drowning in it.

Yesterday IT Business Edge's Mike Vizard wrote about a survey commissioned by IT services firm Avanade that found, among other things, business executives feel overwhelmed by increasing amounts of data. This doesn't exactly set off the surprise-o-meter. I found it about as predictable as the use of the word "cloud" in a technology vendor's press release.


Sixty-two percent of C-level executives said they were frequently interrupted by irrelevant incoming data. This is a problem, no question. But last time I checked, most of us exercised some control over the frequency with which we receive data.


E-mail was far and away cited as the source of the most data, mentioned by about 70 percent of the execs. Hmmm. You know, I find I get a lot more work done when I only check my e-mail a few times a day vs. several times an hour. Yet even though I know this, it's often tough to keep myself from ending up in the inbox. (I'll just take a quick peek. ...)


Back in 2007 I interviewed Marsha Egan, CEO of professional coaching firm The Egan Group and author of "Help! I've Fallen into My Inbox and Can't Climb Out! Five Email Self Management Strategies that Will Add Hours to Your Week and Reclaim Your Workplace Email Productivity." She told me many folks continue to manage their e-mail the same way they always have, even as the number of messages they receive grows:

Whether it's an addiction or not, many people have developed habits around how they manage their e-mail that are more time consuming than they should be. People used to get two or three e-mails a day, now they get 30 or 40, or maybe even 80 or 90. The habits you started with become ingrained. With only two or three e-mails, a bad habit doesn't hurt you. With 80, it might. The more unnecessary time you spend on your e-mail, the more it will get in the way of your work productivity, or time with your family, or doing what is important to you. When e-mail robs you of an hour a day, it's not replaceable. I don't want to give the impression that I don't like e-mail. It is efficient, cheap and effective. But anything used to excess can not serve you. Many people, by tweaking a few things, might be able to add hours to their week.

Among her suggestions: Close your e-mail when you are working, and only check it at certain, pre-designated times. The caveat, she said, is "there are some businesses like newsrooms where you have to be available all the time in case there is urgent breaking news." While this is true, I'd argue that many folks simply convince themselves that they need to always be available.


When you get an e-mail, Egan said, either "handle it and get rid of it" or place it in an action folder. Most folks should have three or four action files, possibly a reading file and a pending file that contains items that aren't yet complete because they are waiting for something. Egan said her clients use a two-minute rule:

As you go through your inbox, if it will take you two minutes or less start-to-finish, regardless of its priority, handle it. This flies in the face of traditional time management theory, which says that you put it into folders. With the wealth of e-mail we get, I think we have to shift our thinking. Otherwise we'll end up keeping those little tasks forever, and they will just add stress. The second you see it will take you more than two minutes, throw it into one of your action folders. If you can read it and file it in a reference folder in less than two minutes, that falls under the Two-Minute Rule.

E-mail isn't the only source of data, of course. In addition to other golden oldies like Word documents and spreadsheets, executives now also get data from newer channels like instant messaging and social media.


Earlier this year, in a post about time management tools, I cited some statistics provided on an online service called RescueTimePro: Its users switch to an IM window 71 times a day, or 11.5 times an hour, and visit an average of 57 websites or applications a day. Some folks, including blogger Dave Pollard, found the time they put into tools like Twitter far exceeds the value they derive from them. Guess what? Nobody twists your arm and makes you use Twitter.


Another stat from the Avanade survey that really struck me: Sixty-one percent of executives said they still want faster access to data, and one in three executives want more sources of data. Seriously? Yes, better filtering tools can sort data and in theory help identify which data is actually relevant. What they can't do, however, is impose self control.