Am I Drunk signWe’re addicted to information, but we can’t stand to think about it again once we’ve seen it, saved it, hoarded it.  Why?  We collect or create it in the moment, but have no thought or plan for its future.  Even when it was once and briefly useful, neglected information soon becomes the effluvium of our digital landfills.  And, like most landfills, the odor is disagreeable and no one wants to be near it.

Pinterest and the P:\ Drive

There is little doubt that social and cultural factors exacerbate and feed our addiction.  The immediate gratification of social media interactions, and the availability of “productivity” tools and data storage accelerate the accumulation of information.  “People hoard because they believe that an item [information] will be useful or valuable in the future. Or they feel it has sentimental value, is unique and irreplaceable . . . . They may also consider an item [information] a reminder that will jog their memory, thinking that without it they won’t remember an important person or event. Or because they can’t decide where something belongs, it’s better just to keep it.

How to Change

Addiction draws us into information overload, but our aversion to uncertainty keeps us from managing what we save or create.  Part of the challenge is that it’s just too hard to focus on something so big, yet so invisible.  We’ve all read the stats on how much information is created each year, but who understands how much 5 exabytes of information is anyway?   It’s beyond our tactile experience—like knowing how many gallons of water are in the ocean, or stars in the sky.

In thinking about change, Tali Sharot, associate professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London, proposes, “Messages that tap into basic human desires — such as the need for agency, a craving for hope, a longing to feel part of a group — are more likely to have impact.”

In a previous post I talked about the consequences of allowing our private selves to bleed into our work selves.  The answer comes back to the summary of human desires, “what’s in it for me”?  So, using Dr. Sharot’s examples, I add here to the list of things we can do for ourselves, and ultimately for our organizations:

Agency/Control.  Ask for and demand guidance.  The single most common complaint I hear from employees is that no one tells them what information to save or where to save it.  They are on their own, FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt) takes over, and they save everything where they wish.  Eliminating uncertainty and doubt is a big step toward giving employees a sense of control over information, and the best way to do that is to publish clear guidance regarding its creation, classification, storage, and retention.  If you’re an employee, ask.  If you’re a manager or executive, get it done.

Hope.  Change is inevitable, but consistency of purpose is invaluable.  Ensure wherever possible that ad hoc efforts to manage information do not stall into yet another failed project.  People need a path to follow, and given adequate opportunity for input and support will most often follow it.  Begin any information governance project with a commitment to the long term.  Seek input (see Control, above).  Give employees hope that their efforts will be rewarded.

Being Part of the Group.  Communicate in person when practical.  Why contribute to data overload with unnecessary texts and e-mail, when a phone call or face-to-face chat both humanizes the interaction and is often more efficient?