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Information Overload: We Can Only Make Headway Through Attention Management From All Sides

By Craig Roth | July 16, 2019 | 0 Comments

Attention Management

Attention management is a difficult problem to solve. And that includes its related cousins of information overload, email overload, interruptions, distractions, and inability to focus. Try to set aside more time to think and reflect and you may find your management scheduling over it and telling you to get more work done. Complain to your software vendor that you can’t track the information bits you’re interested in and they may say your IT department pays for the product and they didn’t include that criteria in their evaluation so it must not be important.

There is a lot of finger pointing going on here:

  • Management/business points a finger at employees saying it’s up to employees to learn to manage their time and organize their work.
  • Employees point a finger at their management/business for expecting too much availability, blasting too many useless messages, and not providing time to think and organize
  • Employees point a finger at IT for not providing tools and training that can help find the gold nuggets in the stream of information organize their work
  • IT points a finger at vendors for not including better filtering mechanisms and ability to opt in and out of certain types of messages
  • Vendors point a finger at IT for not listing attentional experience in their evaluations and workers for not being able to articulate exactly what they want.

That is a lot of problems to simultaneously solve! In fact, this finger pointing is indicative of awicked problem. A wicked problem is a social or cultural problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of the interconnected nature of these problems.

I think everyone would like to have a better attentional experience at work – the ability to notice the important things in an increasingly busy stream of information while not being bothered with the less important things. But all those negative aspects of attention management – like information overload – require progress on multiple fronts that are too often uncoordinated.

I see four interconnected sides to this problem:

  • Workers need to have the willingness and ability to use the attentional aspects of their tools. They need a general approach that these tools are not things that get in the way of them doing their jobs – they are part of doing their jobs. There are many self-help books and articles aimed at the info-stressed worker. My document to information workers is “The Joy of Information Abundance (and Why Information Overload Is the Wrong Story).”
  • IT acquires and deploys the technology that makes the problem better or worse. They can consider attentional experience in product evaluations, and deploy products that help users manage their attention and reduce overload. When deploying software they can set defaults (like turning off email toasts by default) and provide guidance that encourages proper etiquette and usage of attentional features. My document to IT professionals is “Enterprise Attention Management: An Enterprisewide Response to Information Overload“.
  • Management/Business (the non-IT part of the company at the management level) sets expectations, policies, and processes that makes the problem better or worse. HR can measure the level of info-stress in the workforce and correlate to effectiveness and attrition. They can approve policies around work/life balance, time for reflection, and design office environments conducive to “flow”. I haven’t written to this audience, but “4 Ways to Help Your Team Avoid Digital Distractions” is a good article to management and “Work Without Walls” by Maura Nevel Thomas is targeted at the management side as well.
  • Vendors provide the software that can help reduce info-stress or pile on more of it. They decide how to prioritize attentional features on the roadmap. This means setting aside some time in the feature race to make products easier on the user. Management needs to recognize the path from improved AX to better conversion rate, adoption, and retention. This can result in creating attentional experience principles that applied to new products and be used as competitive differentiation. My document to technology providers is “Pay Attention to Attention Management to Offer Better User Experience.”

Some progress can be made by addressing one side, but there is always pull from the other three sides that causes the improvements to backslide.

If any organization is serious about improving worker efficiency and reaction time and decreasing info-stress, they can arrange for three of these sides to meet in the same room to work out solutions. Representatives of the workers, IT (CIO and owners of some end user systems), and non-IT management (HR, facilities, and a few business units) can agree on problems, desired outcomes, and approaches to get there. And this approach can be conveyed to vendors as products are being renewed or evaluated to put pressure on software providers to increase the priority of attentional experience.

I don’t have much hope of solving a wicked problem in one blog post, but some concerted effort between all four sides of this issue could result in some tangible improvements.

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