ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

Online Edition - January 2001


Surviving in The New Economy: From virtual workplaces to technology overload, this special feature takes an in-depth look at the changing demands of our workplaces and world.

  In This Issue...

Celebrating the Power of People
Tricks of the Trade—Unique Tranining Ideas
Views For A Change
Pageturners: Flawless Consulting Fieldbook

 One From Column B —
I Will Survive

 Peter Block explains why the new economy is just an economy, and why our relationships and our senses promise survival .

  Surviving In The New   Economy:

Working In A Virtual World
Defining The New Economy
Penny Sanchez- Burruss and Barry Johson, Ph.D

The 24/7 Work Invasion
Info, Info, Everywhere!
Brief Cases
Tips: It's About Time and Finding Time


Return to NFC Index

  Special Feature: Surviving In The New Economy

Info, Info, Everywhere!
An Avalanche of Information Keeps Us Constantly Connected

Is the incomparable speed of high technology saving you time or stealing your time? Have you lost the ability to turn off the switch and forget about work when 5:00 p.m. roles around?
  The Internet, e-mail, cell phones and fax machines have changed the way we do business, but they've also changed the way we spend our time away from the job. If we aren't constantly connected we feel as though we're wasting time and letting others get ahead. Information overload can lead to increased anxiety and, if we're not careful, to burnout.
Connecting is a choice and we don't have to be in touch every second of the day. Learn to appreciate the fine art of disconnecting every once in a while.

Time is finite: As the song from "Rent" tells us, 525,600 minutes measure one year. Each moment must be consciously spent for maximum results. Twenty years ago high technology promised an era of tremendous productivity. Access to information on the Internet and ease of communication via e-mail held out the prospect of a world where physical boundaries disappeared and time restraints evaporated.

  Present-day reality is more sobering. Some experts argue that, rather than serving, technology has enslaved us. Easy access to the Internet and other technology means many of us are always connected. What once seemed a benefit has become a lifestyle precluding downtime.

  Last summer Yukari Iwatani of Reuters news service wrote, "There is no escaping the Web. Kiosks are springing up everywhere to allow consumers to surf the Internet and check e-mail between wash cycles and baseball innings. Amusement parks, ballparks, campgrounds, bars, car washes, shopping centers and sports clubs are all offering Web access as kiosks pop up in unlikely places, hoping to grab the attention of Net addicts, professionals and even first-time users. Only five years ago (1995), Internet cafés in which customers grab a cup of java and peruse the Web for a fixed per-minute fee were a novelty. Now Internet access is a common amenity at virtually every major airport and many business hotels."

  Iwatani mentions laundromats, movie theaters and McDonald's restaurants as other sites for connecting. Public libraries provide brief periods of free access. Business travelers wedge their laptops onto airline fold-down trays to review downloaded e-mail. Once they land, they rush to a hotel with high-speed Internet connections to retrieve more.

  Marketing expert Dan Janal says the Internet is pervasive, shaping the way companies and their employees work. He says the Internet shapes not only business, but life itself. "Get online," he writes, "or get in the unemployment line."

  A Web pundit who calls himself "" reports being approached by a man who appeared to be a panhandler. Rather than asking for spare change, he implored, "You gotta log on to! There's vampires everywhere!" The writer notes, "When even the bums on the street are pushing their domain names down your throat in some form of guerilla marketing, it can mean only one thing: The Internet is everywhere."

Faster, More

  We live in a world with few boundaries. In today's global economy, someone is always doing business. Organizations and their employees feel increasing pressure to be connected and available all the time.

  Stephen Roach of Morgan Stanley Dean Witter says technology has trapped people into working "24/7"-every hour of the day, every day of the week. "Courtesy of laptops, cell phones, home fax machines and other appliances," he observes, "knowledge workers are now online in cars, planes, trains and homes, virtually tethered to their offices."

  Roach sees burnout down the road. "The '24/7' culture of nearly around-the-clock work is endemic to the wired economy. Acceleration of productivity growth through hard work alone isn't sustainable. People simply can't work harder and harder indefinitely. That's a lesson that should not be lost on America and its brave new economy."

  David Shenk provides a probing analysis of the impact of information technology on contemporary life in, "Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut." According to Shenk, an avalanche of information is overwhelming contemporary life. This "data smog" stems from an explosion of communication and information in recent decades, including advertising, junk mail and telemarketing, faxes, voice mail, cell phones, news media and cyber-based sources from e-mail to the World Wide Web.

  Among Shenk's "laws" of data smog, he reminds us, "What they sell is not information technology, but information anxiety." Who hasn't experienced the sinking feeling that the computer or cell phone purchased six months ago is suddenly outdated? Knowing there's something out there with more bells and whistles leaves many of us yearning for the upgrade.

  Product development and marketing are premised on creating an insatiable consumer demand for ever-improving technology. In fact, machines' inherent inability to address basic human needs (another of Shenk's "laws"-"Computers are neither human nor humane") drives the appetite for more technology and greater speed.

A High Price

  In their book "Technostress: Coping with Technology @ Work @ Home @ Play," psychologists Michelle M. Weil and Larry D. Rosen say it's time to slow down. "More people are embracing today's technology to save time," they write. "But they are not using the extra time for leisure. They are running as fast as they can, moving at warp speed, juggling too many tasks, and always wondering, 'Where did the time go?'"

  In fact, the consequences are often worse than simple frustration. The International Stress Management Association has defined "information fatigue syndrome" to focus on the physical and mental price we pay for the overloaded, quickened pace of contemporary life. Symptoms include heightened blood pressure, impaired vision, confusion and frustration and diminished concern for others.

 The frightening phenomenon of "road rage" is an outcome of such pressure. Most of us have witnessed drivers possessed by irrational behavior, speeding to reach their destination. Such individuals forego common sense, become furious at the slightest error of other drivers and often cause accidents far more serious than the events triggering their behavior. All in the name of speed, a mind-set fostered by an environment of accelerating technology.

  Information overload has horrendous consequences throughout society. Since people feel helpless, confused and angry, their work efficiency erodes and their families suffer. In extreme cases, such feelings might even contribute to crime rates. We can address these issues by beginning to make individual decisions toward focused, positive action.

Filtering Toward Simplicity

  Reducing information overload means making choices. The fundamental action required to address these issues is to reduce the quantity of information consumed and increase its quality.

  Executive coach Emory Mulling characterizes the solution as straightforward and old-fashioned: "People still must recognize that they have to prioritize and win now," he says. "We have access to all the information in the world, but that doesn't mean we can process it. In fact, far from it."

  Another term to describe the approach is "filtering." This can be as simple as not reading junk e-mail. Using technology available in most e-mail software, you can create actual filters to sort e-mail into manageable categories. It's about deciding what's important. No single human being can digest or manage all the information available daily, so we have to decide what's important.

  However you choose to set priorities-you might ascribe to Stephen Covey's dictums ("First Things First") or realign your lifestyle according to the recommendations of Elaine St. James ("Simplify Your Life") or Jeff Davidson ("The Joy of Simple Living")-most experts agree that the best way to escape overload is to reduce the volume of distraction and focus on issues and information you care about and truly need.

Psychologists Weil and Rosen recommend asking three questions:

Do I really need to know now?
Do I really want to know now?
Do I really want the interruption that may occur once I know?

Making Choices

  Experts offer advice about how to take control of the amount of information flooding our lives. A simple step is monitoring phone time. Don't be on hold forever. To avoid interminable rounds of phone tag, leave brief voice-mail messages describing an action you want taken or a question you need to have answered. Invite a similar response.
Many of us feel dependent on cell phones or pagers. But constant connection can be stressful. In many cases it's both unnecessary and distracting, making you less productive in the task at hand.

  It's more efficient to deal with information when it arrives, regardless of the medium-regular mail, e-mail, fax, Internet and so on. Many recommend touching each piece of paper only once: Use it and file it, or toss it. Avoid "maybe" piles. If it's not worth dealing with the first time, it's not likely to increase in importance.

Potholes on the Info Highway

  The ease with which we can communicate and access vast resources on the Internet means we must be especially attentive to the potential potholes on the information superhighway.

  E-mail makes it so easy to communicate that it's become a double-edged sword. Many people abuse it, and others use it carelessly. To prevent being overwhelmed by useless e-mail, guard your address jealously. You can install a spam filter to eliminate (or at least reduce) the amount of junk e-mail you receive.

  Don't add to the problem. Avoid forwarding jokes, chain letters and other mindless banter. If you know someone who will enjoy it, then send it. But if you regularly send material to more than a few people, it's likely many of them don't appreciate it.

  By scanning headers on incoming e-mail, you can avoid those you don't care to read. Avoid sending empty messages-"Thanks," for instance-unless a response is required. Be careful about giving away others' e-mail addresses. If you mail to a large group, enter the recipients in the area for "blind copies." That way your message won't be preceded by a massive list of addresses and others can't skim addresses from your correspondence.

  Sir Walter Scott was two centuries ahead of his time when he wrote, "Oh, what a tangled web we weave..." Think of the World Wide Web as the spider; you're the prey, easily entangled, finding yourself hours later still chasing something you could have found more quickly and easily at the library or in an almanac. The Internet is a tremendous tool, but it's important to learn to search efficiently. Determine which sites and search engines suit your particular needs and use them regularly. Familiarity makes the process more efficient.

  Avoid chasing banner ads (they're not there to serve you, but rather to sell you goods and services), and think twice before you follow links. The best approach is to sit down with a finite period and a specific outcome in mind for your search. If you can't find what you need in a few minutes, you're probably wasting your time.

  We once thought the world would become a paperless environment. The truth is we use it more and more. In fact, paper consumption per capita in the United States tripled from 1980 to 1990, to 1,800 pounds. You won't add much to that total by being selective and using your printer. It will save time to print information found on the Internet. You can read it more quickly and you won't have to search for it again.

  Finally, know when to stop. The Internet will continue providing information long after you have what you need. Computer guru John Dvorak, a regular columnist for PC Magazine, writes, "Just because you have a library card doesn't mean you're required to read every book in the Library of Congress."

Who's In Charge?

  The ready availability of information via the Internet can be a blessing or a curse. The same is true of most technology. Offered as progress, many advances now add to our daily burden of stress. Taking and making calls on cell phones. Checking the market from wired personal organizers. Expecting everything to be available immediately.
The "24/7" world created by these advances has led many people to an exaggerated sense of self-importance. It's tough to maintain balance: If you're not constantly connecting, consuming, hurrying, wheeling and dealing, you're drifting away from the center.

  For such people, technology has become the master. A few years ago, Hugh Heclo, a professor at George Mason University, conceived of "downteching," describing it as "the conscious embrace of older, simpler machines. In the long run, excesses of technology mean that the comparative advantage shifts from those with information glut to those with ordered knowledge, from those who can process vast amounts of throughput to those who can explain what is worth knowing and why."

  Despite the fact that the Internet is everywhere-and that we can e-mail everyone with the nugget of information we've just gleaned-we must keep Heclo's reminder in mind: What is worth knowing? And why?

January 2001Homepage

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