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EAM Meets Social Software

by Craig Roth  |  May 28, 2010  |  Comments Off on EAM Meets Social Software

Information overload coverage is predominantly about e-mail. That’s understandable – it’s where the message pipe into information workers’ brains tends to be at fire hose levels, threatening to fill their heads like balloons. But I’ve started to get questions on how social software will add to the overload. That’s a good point given Gartner’s prediction that "By 2014, social networking services will replace e-mail as the primary vehicle for interpersonal communications for 20 percent of business users." So I understand concerns that adding social software could cause information overload problems.

First, a bit of terminology to be clear. Information overload is when people feel overloaded or stressed due to the amount of information they have dumped on them. To some degree it’s a psychological state. I generally talk about EAM, which is more neutral – the idea that the amount of information will continue to increase, but whether it’s information overload or just information abundance depends on how it’s dealt with. So that leads to management rather than hand wringing, turning off email, or other extreme reactions.

Many people certainly do feel overloaded even with just email and meetings. So adding wikis, RSS feeds, updating internal Facebook profiles, and monitoring twitter streams to that mix can push even more people into that negative, stressful overload situation.

One can argue that social software will be harmful or helpful for the info-stress of an organization’s workers. The "social will increase info-stress" argument says that it will now be even tougher to find the needle in the haystack (or fill in whatever signal to noise analogy you prefer). That 5pm end of day rolls around without you getting to even 20% of the info you’d like to instead of 50% today. And, from a management point of view, it encourages people to waste time.

The "social will decrease info-stress" argument points out that social information can act as a filtering mechanism – it lets trusted others guide your attention to important content or warns you away from time sinks. Rating systems, shared links and bookmarks, and the ability to quickly canvass your network all make finding those gold nuggets of information easier. Besides, email is often the lightning rod for info-stress and social mechanisms can decrease the reliance on email.

Whether the good or bad argument wins out depends on the culture of an organization and the nature of individual information workers. But how can organizations mitigate the risk of increasing info-stress with social software? To make the good more likely than bad?

  1. Manage expectations to whatever degree is possible. Whether people keep a zero-inbox mindset or move to a stream mindset has a lot to do with whether they’ll feel stressed by the increasing amount of information to sort through.
  2. Encourage participation. Social networks and information feeds can be daunting to people that don’t know their way around them and feel like strangers. Once they move from scanners and lurkers to active participants, information workers will have a larger network to canvass and get a better feel for how to prioritize social information channels.
  3. Build around trust and culture. You won’t be able to find that perfect line between wasting time and activity that could lead to serendipitous connections. So the degree to which you try depends on the level of trust management has in information workers and what the culture allows.
  4. Review technology with attentional characteristics in mind. The use of attentional technologies – those that help pull forward and push back information – can have some impact on likelihood of a good outcome. RSS readers, different forms of search and personalization, and easy to create rules or buttons to block or flag certain types of messages can all help.

All this is easier said than done and implementation is specific to each organization. But this gives a starting point for organizations that want to ensure that the positive aspects of social software on info-stress win out over the negatives.

Category: attention-management  social-software  

Craig Roth
Managing Vice President: Communication, Collaboration, and Content
4 years at Gartner
25 years IT industry

Craig Roth is a vice president and service director for Gartner Research, in Burton Group's Collaboration and Content Strategies service. Mr. Roth covers a wide range of knowledge and Web-related topics at the intersection of collaboration, content… Read Full Bio




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