Information Technology or Information Toxicity?
I have just acquired the ultimate in mobile technology – the BlackBerry Torch. I have always been a ‘CrackBerry’ as they seem to deal with my emails, text messages and calendar really well; although I have been secretly envious of the iPhones a lot of my friends and family have. Now that envy has gone, as BlackBerry have combined the traditional features with a touch screen that accesses more apps than I’ll ever need – and it’s good for making telephone calls!
However, it has taken me a long time to control my technology and use it when I want to, rather than letting it control me. This is because my coaching experience has evidenced my long-held concern of how we are surrounded by gadgets, some of which are supplied by employers and some are just our favourites, which mean that we are contactable twenty-four hours a day. Social networking also means that the giving and receiving of all sorts of information is instantaneous and keeps people attached to their iPhones or PCs even more often during the time they are being paid to work! Information Technology is usually talked about as a positive and time-saving aide but the amount of information that we are bombarded with daily is becoming a health-hazard; a hazard I call Information Toxicity.
When coaching business owners and senior managers, an issue that arises time and again is that of ‘information overload’. The result of all of this information is an inability to switch off and, consequently, we have a workforce who don’t have time for lunch, who respond to e-mails on the train and at home, who become attached to their technology and who are becoming ill!
So how did we end up with this situation? It began in 1971 when Ray Tomlinson invented e-mail, although this was only used in larger companies, who could afford the latest, very expensive, computers. In those ancient times the ordinary person would communicate by sending a letter and, hopefully, getting a reply within a few days. At work we could send a fax and anticipate a reply within the next couple of days.
What no-one, including Ray Tomlinson, had foreseen was the introduction of the home-computer in the 1980s. In fact IBM’s Thomas J. Watson is reported to have said, “I think there is a worldwide market for maybe five computers” and DEC’s Ken Olsen’s opinion was, “there is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home”. In 1986 it was suggested that lap-tops were a fad that would die out.
Instead, what added to the popularity of the home computer was the introduction and roll-out of the World Wide Web. Although the Internet was invented in 1973 by American computer scientist Vinton Cerf the World Wide Web was developed in 1989 by English computer scientist Timothy Berners-Lee. In July 2002 Sharon Gaudin interviewed Ray Tomlinson, who invented email in 1971 and asked him, “How do you see email evolving? What will it look like 10 years from now?” His reply was, “If it doesn’t get killed off from spam, it probably won’t be a lot different. You may see it more closely integrated with other forms of communication, though, like instant messaging. Once email is answered, you could continue the conversation more immediately, like with instant messaging. Simultaneous correspondence is a lot better than a few emails in a few hours. Or maybe you’ll get an email and press a button and make a phone call…”
So, this explosion of information has evolved over just three decades, including the palm-top, allowing us to respond to our e-mails 24 hours a day, from anywhere in the world. And, what is a reasonable time to respond? I have written about human beings changing their concept of time and this is a classic example. Along with this technology came the expectation that you will answer e-mails almost immediately – and if you don’t, then it seems okay for the person who sent it to phone you and ask you why not. If they need an instant response, why didn’t they phone you in the first place? Often it is because the email gives them an audit trail of what they sent you and when. Also Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn mean that you can find out what your friends are doing right now, together with photos or videos of it.
The outcome is that we are creating a potential health epidemic and already have a thing called ‘half-attention-deficit-disorder’, which we have all experienced when we are talking to someone who is half conversing with us and half checking their iPhone or BlackBerry. People are not being rude when they do this – well, not all of them – they are under psychological pressure to be ‘on top of their game’.
The reality is that these people are becoming increasingly tired and less effective. I have clients who receive so many emails that their entire day can be spent responding to them and they lose focus on their day job – and their staff. Then look for a regulation, policy or procedure. Don’t worry, they are on the Internet or company Intranet but, unfortunately, all business people need so much information that, in order to read it all, you will need to stop your day job and start reading – and you will still be reading when you decide to retire – or die! However, you are supposed to have read and understood all of this information. Why? Well, if you do not comply with one of these regulations or policies, saying that you were not even aware of it will not excuse you. If you employ people, just think about the amount of legislation and process you have to know about.
Even when away from the workplace there is no let up, which I witness when I am involved with clients whose mobiles are switched off or put on silent. I am faced with people who are fidgety, who are not fully present and, as soon as we have a comfort break, dash for their BlackBerry. Rarely do you get a relaxed conversation over lunch because the pressure they are under means that they have a whole morning’s e-mails and telephone messages to respond to. They are like drug addicts who suffer from withdrawal if their supply of information is taken away.
Along with this health hazard has come a psychological phenomenon of a person’s perception of their self-worth becoming commensurate with how often their iPhone goes off – ‘People constantly need me, so I am worthy – and important. Your BlackBerry has not rung, so people do not need you – you are a lowly person!’ This can be damaging when they retire and do not receive this constant demand from others.
What is the answer? If I knew that I would be a very rich man, but I do know it is not sustainable. If this disease is affecting you, either as an employer or an employee, I have put some questions below that I have asked in a coaching relationship:
For the owner / senior manager:
• When was the last time you gave yourself time to think about your business? (Many businesses fail because everyone is busy doing things and no-one is looking at new opportunities or keeping an eye on potential competition.)
• When was the last time you went for a walk, went fishing or whatever you do to re-charge your batteries? (This can also be when you get your best business ideas.)
• If you are having to make telephone calls, send texts or email people after you have ‘finished work’, why can’t you manage your time effectively during your working day to prevent this happening?
• If you are a ‘workaholic’ where does it say, in their contract of employment, that your employees have to be?
• What culture are you creating in your organisation that allows your technology to control you, rather than you controlling it?
• What is this doing for your personal and organisational reputation? (You may think that customers and clients may think you’re ‘wonderful’ for contacting them at ridiculous times. The chances are they don’t appreciate having their spare time being interrupted and they may end up seeing you as a bit of a pain.)
• Who’s going to run your business whilst you are in hospital recovering from your heart-attack – or when you are dead?
For the employee:
• Why are you finding it necessary to send / respond to work-based communications in your own time?
• Where does it say, in your contract of employment, ‘must be constantly on call and ready to respond within the hour’?
• What does responding to all of these demands do for you – make you look important – or make you look like a puppet, there to respond to the strings of your boss?
• What is the personal cost to you of continually dealing with work, as regards friends and family?
• How much more relaxed would you feel if ‘work’ was kept at work and your own time was truly yours?
• What’s the sick pay like at your place – and do you have mortgage protection cover for the time you’re off long-term sick?