We don't know what's next for business - but what we do know is how to help you be ready. This blog is all about anticipating the future and positioning you for success.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Reality of Information Overload

I know I’m not alone with this situation – constant email, text, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIN alerts, multiple notices from groups I want to stay connected with, calls on the business line while my cell phone is ringing, and the unscheduled "visit" from a co-worker who just needs a minute of my time. Wow! No wonder I’m having a hard time getting things done! We all have a lot of information coming at us. How do we make sense of it in order to not miss things we should know or do? The technology age has shackled us. Do we have the skills to free ourselves?

According to a recent survey, employees and employers are worried about the impacts of information overload on productivity, morale, and work quality. We’ve modified our behaviors to embrace new technologies and now many of us have trouble controlling our desire to know what’s happening continuously on issues related to work, family and friends, politics, entertainment and business. And even though I don’t like to admit it, I too have to put on an "out of office" message, and sometimes even really do work outside the office, in order to get real work done. The truth be known, my most productive time is on a cross-country flight. Wow, four hours of uninterrupted time! Don’t give me WiFi and please don’t let passengers start using cell phones on planes. This is the best uninterrupted time you can hope for.

One report produced by the Burton Group states that our expectations for responsiveness have increased greatly and individuals now feel an instinctive need to respond immediately, or they are consumed with guilt. They refer to the "CrackBerry effect," and although we might use the term jokingly, both about ourselves and our friends, it’s beginning to look more and more like the truth.

Like many, I’m questioning if technology and our expectations for staying connected have gone too far? Jack Santos, the author of the Burton Group report, wrote that "the cumulative responses from the CIO community to all of this info-insanity is: ‘Stop the world! I need to get off!’"

Looking at our behaviors and the problems we encounter when we try to disconnect from technology for any period of time (say a vacation week) I think it’s reasonable to ask "are our skill sets for emotionally and psychologically managing the volumes of available information in step with the pace of technological advancements?" Jonathan Spira, a researcher who studies worker productivity, has written a book on the topic of information overload, quite perfectly entitled "Overload: How Too Much Information is Hazardous to Your Organization."  According to his research, a worker reading and responding to 100 emails a day can easily occupy one half of the work day! Think about that – how many emails do you respond to in a day? Spira’s research goes further to reveal, "for every 100 people who are unnecessarily copied on an email, eight hours of productivity are lost." So what’s the answer? How do we tame the information overload beast eating up precious hours of productive time for each worker?

Suggestions from The Experts

Spira and others suggest a few "simple" things we can do to change our productivity metrics:
  1. Stop sending emails that only say "thanks." I know that on some occasions it is important to acknowledge that "I got it," but make these the exception rather than the rule.
  2. Schedule e-mail time two to three times a day for 10 minutes at a time.
  3. Discontinue smart phone use, or at least check it only on a predefined schedule rather than at every vibration.
  4. Before you hit the "reply all" button – does everyone need to know what you’re about to say? Good question!
  5. Turn off email and text alerts (sound and vibration) so you’re not tempted to be distracted from what you are focused on.
  6. Learn to block those advertisements that you don’t need to be bothered with in order to cut down on interruptions.
  7. Think twice - or maybe three times - before forwarding that chain notice or joke – what a waste of time.
  8. Set aside immersion time. –Bill Gates is probably the best at this with his "Think Week" retreat. This time is for getting away from technology and focusing on consuming ideas, books, articles, conversations that will stimulate new ideas without interruptions and distractions.
Tools to Assist

A survey conducted by LexisNexis suggests that businesses aren’t doing enough to help workers manage the information they are exposed to. Workers from each market said they would welcome up-to-date technology and customized tools for managing information, as well as training on best practices and self-discipline. Until better tools are available, consider utilizing available support and time management skills to manage the stress and impact of this phenomenon:
  1. Turn on your Out of Office Message so you won’t feel so guilty about not responding as soon as a message hits your mailbox.
  2. Use an RSS Reader to organize the most important information you need to access.
  3. Stay focused on connecting with the most important information you need to know and don’t worry about the rest.
  4. Form "support groups" at work to discuss the problem and to share ideas for disconnection.
  5. Practice shutting down cell phones, email, etc. about two hours prior to bedtime in order to give your brain a chance to disengage.
  6. Establish an electronic system for filing your emails and attachments to shorten retrieval time.
So What’s Next?

Information overload is not a new problem. According to an article in Harvard Business Review by Ann Blair, in 1255 the Dominican Vincent of Beauvais articulated the key ingredients of the feelings of overload which are still with us today: "the multitude of books, the shortness of time and the slipperiness of memory." Sound familiar? No one doubts the fact that the age of information and knowledge is here. What we need to do is build the skills and disciplines to properly survive it.

When attending a time management workshop you probably learned about time wasters – the people who stop by your office and ask, "do you have a few minutes?" and 30 minutes later you’re still trying to get them out of your cubicle. The colleague that calls and before you can say hello, says "I’ll only keep you for five minutes," but before you know it, an hour has passed. Or, the meeting you’ve been requested to attend that has nothing to do with the work you are currently responsible for. And the list goes on. Well it’s time to add the time wasters of email, Twitter, Facebook, etc. to that group. These are all good tools when properly utilized to add value to our lives, but when they begin to dictate daily priorities, they can turn into the biggest time wasters.

Research continues to demonstrate that our brains are not structured for multi-tasking in a time efficient manner, and in fact, we should try to avoid multi-tasking at all costs. As Mr. Spira’s research concludes, "when it comes to cognitive tasks, our brains aren’t really capable of competently doing more than one thing at a time." The research seems to be clear, "workers distracted by email and phone calls suffer a fall in IQ more than twice that found in a marijuana smoker"! (2005 University of London Study). If we can hardly walk and chew gum at the same time, what’s to be done about all these pulls for our attention and engagement with information?

Surprisingly, there appears to be movement away from supporting distractors like email and the like. An August article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution reports that "Companies like PriceWaterhouseCoopers have put out requests urging employees to not email over the weekend, so as to not create a false urgency for action. And the French service company Atos Origin plans to go email free in the next three years to cut down on what it calls ‘information pollution.’ There’s even an effort underway to ‘conquer information overload’ and restore sanity to working professionals. The site InfoVegan is dedicated to information obesity, diets and civic accountability." What’s your organization doing about this problem?

Whether it’s email, social media, YouTube or whatever, informative availability has invaded our homes and work zones. Establishing a work culture that honors "nontechnical" time and values a healthy expectation for a balanced and realistic number of "connected" hours is a good step in the right direction. Helping our employees develop reasonable and practical skills for managing the 24/7/365-paced global environment should be on the priority list of every leader. I would suggest denying access to the technologies is not the answer. In addition to shifting the culture, organizations should begin to offer workshops about the impact of information overload to brain functionality and productivity along with training focused on building new skills to better manage the information produced by the expanding access to technology channels.

What’s your experience with information overload? What’s working for you and your employees, and where are you struggling? Please share your comments below.

 Raise Awareness and Change Behaviors

Collaborate for a Solution

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Soft Skills Dilemma

Last week as a volunteer for the SHRM GA State Council, I had the pleasure of participating as a panelist at the Governor’s Workforce Development Town Hall meeting in Marietta. If you haven’t heard about these meetings yet you might check out their website and get involved. There are 31 meetings planned across the state from August through November. The purpose of the meetings is to bring together stakeholders interested in finding practical and sustainable solutions to the soft skills gaps Georgia employers are facing. SHRM GA State Council is excited about the opportunity to participate in these meetings and offer the human resource professional perspective on how to train and on-board individuals who have not yet mastered these key life skills.  
Melvin Everson, the Executive Director of the Workforce Development Office, opened our meeting citing research which indicates that most employment terminations are not occurring because of a lack of technical skills or insubordination. Instead, individuals (particularly young people; first time employees, etc.) are losing their jobs as a result of a lack of understanding and demonstration of behaviors such as the following in the workplace:
  • successfully being able to work in teams
  • consistently being reliable and punctual
  • communicating well with others, verbally and in writing
  • solving problems and thinking outside the box
  • dressing appropriately for the work environment
Whatever you want to call them, "life skills" or "soft skills," the nation – not just GA - is facing a huge gap in qualified candidates and workers as a result of a lack of these types of qualities. This problem will require involvement by all stakeholders, including the business community, to remedy. Are these gaps in soft skills surfacing in your organization?

What’s the Problem?

The message was the same from many of the individuals attending the meeting. Many are Baby Boomers who grew up in a time when the rule at home was, "You have trouble at school, and you’ll have twice as much trouble at home." The solidarity parents and teachers had for working together to teach the skills needed for success doesn’t seem to be the same today. We heard comments and suggestions about the root causes for our current situation that included issues such as:

  • The concept of "respect" and demonstrating that to others, including people in positions of authority, is different today.
  • For many families in the 50’s and 60’s, graduation from high school was a step beyond where the parents had been – so the journey of the family was seen as moving forward. Families aren’t on the same journey today.
  • Teachers used to serve as mentors and role models. Today, teachers don’t have the time, aren’t as passionate about that role, or are afraid to challenge children in the classroom, especially teens.
  • Many parents today are children themselves and haven’t learned these lessons yet, so it’s hard, if not impossible, for them to teach them to their children.
  • Many families today include two parents working and they are often too busy or tired to get involved with the activities of their teens.
  • Many families have only one parent "doing it all" and they are not able to keep up with everything – including discipline and manners.
  • Today, based on the violence we’ve seen play out in schools, many teachers are afraid of confronting or disciplining students.  
  • The schools are not demanding or teaching appropriate dress. As a result, when young people come to work they are unaware that there is a standard they will be judged by.
  • The availability of technology has created a culture of isolationism to the degree that young people would rather text or email comments rather than have a conversation. This lack of having to talk with others has had a dramatic impact on communication and interpersonal skills.

What’s the Solution?

Sourcing, recruiting, hiring and terminations require time; and we all know time is money. Employers are looking for a workforce that has not only the technical skills to succeed, but maybe more importantly, the self-awareness and soft skills necessary to work with others within a culture that demands respect, courtesies, proper dress and dependability. The Economic Development Offices across the country want to be able to tell businesses shopping for a state to house their operations that they have an educated and ready workforce to staff necessary positions. So how do we ensure that pipeline?

From my experience as an Organization Development consultant, Human Resource Manager and trainer it certainly looks like the solution will require a collaborative approach. The immediate answer may be that employers need to offer training to young hires as reinforcement to the information shared through the on-boarding process. Maybe something like - How to Be Successful at Work 101 (I’m already developing this workshop). In addition, matching the new hires with a mentor to help show them the ropes and model the required behaviors could be extremely helpful. Underlining the training and mentoring, each new hire has to understand that these behaviors are critical to their success in the organization, and failure to demonstrate them in a consistent manner could result in termination.

Beyond the employer taking care of current hires, our school systems (elementary through college) need to step back and identify creative ways to weave successful work skills into their day-to-day processes, courses, and parent/teacher activities. I think everyone agrees that offering training to students and parents about the importance of embracing and demonstrating these "everyday skills" is imperative. In addition to the training, students need to be held accountable, just like they will be on the job, with consequences for falling short. Teaching parents will be just as important, so they can reinforce the training at home.

The Governor’s Workforce Development Office is already working on how to integrate these important lessons into their Work Ready certification programs. This is another collaborative effort of government, education, business, students, local communities and volunteers. Some of the competencies they will be addressing, such as punctuality and dress, will need to be measured more by a demonstration of understanding, rather than testing. The GA Work Ready Program is already a national example of how collaboration and training can succeed. Adding the requirements for soft skills is another strong example of how important they are for success and how dedicated the state is to having a workforce ready to succeed in the future.

So What’s Next?

I think we all agree the lack of interpersonal, communication and soft skills is a big problem for organizations. Given the size of the problem, it seems like we all need to get involved in one way or another to develop solutions and implement them.

At the SHRM Student HR Conference this past spring, Pam Greene, Chief Membership Officer, spoke for over an hour to the attending college students about the importance of proper dress, communication, language, punctuality, management of technologies, etc. Many of the issues she mentioned are the same ones we’re addressing in the Georgia Town Hall meetings. Businesses are beginning to offer etiquette classes to address common courtesies, respect and teamwork. States like Georgia are turning up the volume on the conversations they’re having with business and education partners to influence training curriculums and attitudes of teachers, parents and students. What’s your organization doing?

As the book title reminds us, It Takes a Village to Raise A Child. That village includes: HR professionals, educators, government agencies, parents, business owners, managers, chambers, associations - anyone with a passion for helping others learn how to succeed. It will take ideas and investments from all of us to close these gaps.

For those employees you’ve already hired that don’t understand what soft skills are and how they help develop great workers, it may be worth your investment to introduce training and link it to dialogues about performance expectation. If you can salvage someone you’ve already been investing in, it’s much more cost effective than terminating them and starting all over with the recruiting, hiring and training processes.

It may also be necessary to initiate a program for candidates interested in applying to your organization. This could involve some mandatory "training" on soft skills as part of the application process. This unusual step could send a strong message about the value your organization assigns to these skills and could raise awareness for the candidate about how the behaviors integrate with the hiring and performance management processes adhered to by your firm.

One person at our meeting raised a good question: "We’re all on the same page about the importance of these skills and that’s why we’re at this meeting. But what about those stakeholders who aren’t here? How do we reach them?" Good question! I’m not sure of the answer, but I believe the more we keep the dialogue going and expanding, the greater our chances to get the right people involved.

This is a complicated and multi-faceted issue. I was honored to be a part of the conversations in Marietta and look forward to the various changes that will be implemented in our education and business systems to solve this problem.  

So your challenge - What are your thoughts about how we can come together to not only dialogue about the problem, but share solutions? I’m interested in learning if and how this issue is impacting your organization. Please respond below.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Strategies for Managing in Difficult Times

It appears the economy is in for a wild white water experience through the rest of this year; and perhaps into 2012. Questions I’m hearing include: "What does this mean for my business?" And, "I was thinking of making some changes in 2012; does it make more sense to implement them now?" And, "How much longer can we afford to hang on?"

What does the dialog with your leadership team sound like? What are you thinking about when you hear how your customers are reacting to these challenging times, and how their "adjustments" might influence your need to adjust?

As a business owner I too am concerned, trying to make sense out of where things are headed. The optimism of the first half of the year seems to have melted away, scorched by the heat of this unusual summer weather, leaving us with the familiar uncertainty of global markets, a lagging job market, Wall Street instability, unsuccessful political leadership (on all sides) and lots of hard-working individuals feeling high levels of stress and frustration about their jobs, careers and dwindling retirement accounts. But just as we do when confronted by other major issues, we have to take a step back to assess what we know and make decisions based on facts and research (90%) and then of course, integrate our decision with our expert judgment based on experience (10%). After that, it’s a matter of working the plan and continuing to modify it as time continues to change the global atmosphere.

We continue to hear that it will be small- and mid-sized businesses that lead us out of these troubled times. But these business owners can only take on so much debt and risk without customers lining up for their products and services. In order to assess the level of risk and determine reasonable next steps, management should gather the leadership team to take stock of what’s going on in the firm, with customers, and around the globe. The next six to nine months may not be as promising as the first half of the year suggested they would be, but with the right level of leadership and preparedness, strategies associated with operations, finance, and the workforce can be adjusted to make the ride through the white water up ahead more bearable.

5 Business Strategies to Incorporate

Today, looking through the consulting lens of Organization Effectiveness, I see a worthwhile need for incorporating these five strategies into a ‘Second Half Business Review and Planning Retreat.’ Would these work for you and your team?

Planning - Assess what’s currently going on in your industry and business community, and envision what the next 12 months will require. Engage your leadership team, as well as gather ideas from employees, customers, suppliers, etc. Your agenda should include, at a minimum, the following. After you conduct the planning retreat, modify your Strategic Plan as appropriate and communicate the near- and far-term expectations with employees.
  • Gather and analyze feedback from customers about their plans for the next 6-12 months.
  • Generate ideas from a variety of stakeholders about short- and long-term trends in marketing, technology, day-to-day operations. What does the organization need to keep doing, what can it let go of, and what should it add?
  • Review the Strategic Goals previously planned for the 3rd and 4th quarter. What changes would you suggest?
  • Examine the markets that are working, and others where investment may not be paying off at the moment. What changes might be useful here?
  • Conduct a SWOT Analysis to identify organizational Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats/Risks, and analyze the data in order to develop themes that will aid future planning efforts.
Workforce - Based on where the organization is headed and the changes in technology that have been or will be implemented, what impact can the organization expect to see on its workforce? Is the organization structured in a manner that drives strategic goals through an environment of collaboration and transparency? Are employees engaged for a healthy and productive day of work, or can they be organized in a more efficient way to improve the effectiveness of their time and contributions? Is retraining or new training required? Are part-time contractors the answer for now, or is the organization ready to commit to full-time workers? Hopefully the idea of layoffs can be avoided, but if not, what transition assistance can the organization offer those displaced workers?

Roles - Considering the jobs employees should be doing, are job descriptions and processes for communicating performance expectations up-to-date and effective? Has leadership communicated changes to the vision/mission/goals and specifically informed employees about what they are responsible for and how their contributions impact the success of the organization? Employees need to be engaged in order to produce the performance expectations that will drive the strategic goals. Is leadership satisfied with how engagement and performance management goals are articulated and implemented? If not, what changes should be made?

Performance - What does the scorecard look like? Do metrics reflect organizational goals and objectives? Are expenses reasonable for the growth and productivity you are achieving? Are there initiatives the organization should explore such as teleworking, volume buying, or consolidation of facilities that would make sense and save money? Are there ways to introduce technology applications to streamline processes and reduce costs? Can a variety of workforce solutions (full-time, part-time, consultants, temporary) help manage payroll and benefit costs in the short-term until workload is more stable and predictable?

Investments - What’s on the horizon to drive and support business growth that the organization should be considering investing in right now and down the road? What’s the plan for how these investments will be financed? Does capital need to be secured? What expectations does the organization have for how these investments will pay off and when?

So What’s Next?

A good project manager will tell you that planning is essential for success. As significant changes are taking place in the business and financial markets, leaders are well-served by taking a step back to objectively assess the impact of market changes on their organizations. And no successful leader would take on this type of assessment and planning without the participation and collaboration of thought leaders and stakeholders.

In order to improve the results of the leadership retreat, be sure to engage with a skilled facilitator who will partner with you to design the meeting agendas with a focus on full participation, strategic objectives and desired outcomes. The benefits of having a facilitator assist will be evident in the quality of the conversations, creativity produced from seemingly conflicting viewpoints, and outcomes achieved from collaborative brainstorming and open dialogs.

Often impartial facilitators are available internally. (Not to sound like a commercial, but if you don’t have someone available within your firm to assist with meeting planning and facilitation, please consider having us work with you.) The point is, a key stakeholder should not plan to design, facilitate and participate in the meeting. That’s too much to expect and usually negatively impacts the ability of the group to achieve quality outcomes.

I’m the eternal optimist. I see the events of the last few weeks more as a sad statement of what our political system has disintegrated into rather than what we are capable of achieving. My glass is definitely more than half full, and I’m hopeful that we’ll find a way to embrace solutions that will spur the growth and innovation I believe our country can achieve. For anyone in Washington reading my blog, please note that I’d be glad to work with you to facilitate some productive meetings focused on what it’s going to take for leaders to act as leaders. Call me (770.587.9032).

Now, my question for you -- What do you think? Do my five strategies resonate with you?   What would you add or change?
I’m interested in hearing your thoughts. Please share your comments below.

Collaborate for a Solution