Battling Information Overload: Interview with LexisNexis’ Mike Walsh

Feeling overworked and under-productive? If so, you’re in good company. Half of employees globally are struggling to manage a daily flood of information, according to LexisNexis’ 2010 International Workplace Productivity Survey, which polled 1,700 white collar workers in five countries.

The situation is so bad that we’re headed towards an information breaking point. “About eight in ten professionals admit to deleting or discarding work information without fully reading it,” according to one of the study’s findings. 59% of workers have had to process more information at work since the economic downturn. Most of these workers admit that their inability to quickly sort through the information they need makes their quality of work suffer.

What’s a white-collar worker to do? We caught up with Mike Walsh, LexisNexis’ President and CEO of US Legal Markets, to take a closer look at the flood of information that threatens to drown the global workforce.

BP: Can you tell me what the most information-overloaded professions in the US are?

Well, I can tell you that our 2010 International Workplace Productivity Survey looked at how information overload affects white collar professionals, including those in the legal, financial, engineering, manufacturing, educational, consulting, governmental and healthcare industries.

While we don’t have a specific breakdown by industry, the overall findings are alarming:

The survey shows that on average, white collar professionals report spending over half (51%) of their work day receiving and managing information, rather than actually using information to do their jobs. For U.S. professionals, this is an almost 10% increase in time spent during their work day receiving and managing information since 2008.

Additionally, professionals in each market we surveyed report that between one-third and one-half of the information they receive at work each day is not important to getting their job done. This amounts to a huge amount of time lost as they sift through irrelevant information.

We also know that the rising tide of information is preventing workers from getting their jobs done effectively. For example, professionals in each country we surveyed report that, at least once a week:

* They deliver incomplete documents, emails or other communications because the necessary information or materials could not be found on time.
* They experience trouble recreating how time was spent for billing purposes.
* They need to recreate a document because a previously-created version could not be found. * They miss deadlines because of trouble finding necessary information.
* They miss a meeting or appointment because of scheduling miscommunications.

BP: What are the worst consequences of information overload on a systemic level?

In our opinion, and based on what we’ve seen in the survey results, information overload will continue to negatively impact employee productivity if companies choose to ignore the issue. The heavy toll on employee morale and productivity will eventually come to bear on the bottom line.

Currently, a majority of workers in every market (62%, on average) admit that the quality of their work suffers at times because they can’t sort through the information they need fast enough. Moreover, approximately one in two (52%) white collar professionals report feeling demoralized when they can’t manage all the information that comes their way at work.

Ultimately, the resulting problems for firms could range anywhere from lost productivity and profits to lost talent.

BP: What are three things white collar workers can do to make themselves more productive?

The first step to manage your information is to keep control of your inbox, e.g. by using software that’s tailored to the way you think and work, as not everyone organizes information in the same way. You can set rules and boundaries for yourself – maybe have less-important emails automatically filter into a folder and allow yourself a specific time each day to review that folder.

Personally, I try to not let the constant email flow interrupt my work day. I rather set aside pockets of time during my day to respond to emails – tackling high priority issues first, getting to lower priority issues later in the day. I also take advantage of creating specific folders for each subject and never keeping a full inbox.

Secondly, you should ask your employer or your IT department for help. There are resources, technology and software out there that are designed to work the way you work and can help you better manage all the information that comes your way. More than eight in ten workers who participated in our survey, regardless of where they were based geographically, stated that their employer has taken at least one action to help them manage information efficiently, such as investing in technology, offering training and establishing “email-free” times. This needs to become common practice in businesses across the board.

Beyond technology investments, the leadership of an organization can help in keeping the information deluge manageable for everyone. For example, when it comes to emails, I try to bundle my communications and, unless there is urgency, I won’t send out emails over the weekend. As we all know, in a 24-7 world, receiving note from you CEO over the weekend can trigger an avalanche of email reactions…

I am also cognizant of the means of communication I am using – email, phone, meetings, webcasts, blogs. This holds true for my communication with employees, customers and partners. It’s important to identify the right channel of communication to exchange information in order to run a successful business.

BP: Is the fact that workers can’t sort through information quickly enough to stay productive a technology issue, or a self-management issue? In other words, who carries the onus for keeping workers productive, the tech companies who create the software workers use, or the workers themselves?

It’s a bit of both, and in our opinion, it’s also the employers’ responsibility.

In our digital age, many workers are expected to be plugged in 24-7. However, on average, two in three (65%) professionals say the constant flow of email and other information is distracting, making it difficult to focus on the task at hand.

Everyone’s job demands are different, but it’s important for employees to work with their employer to set up a standard for response-time expectations as well as how tasks should be prioritized. Employers should also regularly work to update their information management systems so that their employees have access to fast, up-to-date technology.

As far as tech company responsibilities, increasing workplace productivity is at the heart of LexisNexis. It is our job to understand the challenges faced by the professionals who use our services, so that we can develop solutions and services that are tailored to meet their needs, and help them overcome the challenges they encounter at work. For instance, we conducted this survey as a part of our ongoing effort to better understand and collaborate with our clients.

We have also embarked on the “New Lexis” initiative to create the next generation of technologies that help our customers become more productive and generate better outcomes for their practices, their businesses and their clients. Results of this initiative include Lexis Advance for Solos, Lexis for Microsoft Office, and InterAction 6.0 for Microsoft Outlook, to name a few.

Official bio: Mike Walsh is the President and CEO of the LexisNexis U.S. Legal Markets division, a leading legal solutions provider in the U.S. providing research, litigation, marketing and business solutions to law firms, corporations and government agencies. Under his direction since 2006, the LexisNexis U.S. Legal Markets team works closely with business and legal professional customers to deliver information and software offerings that help them work more efficiently and achieve better outcomes.

Written by Drea Knufken

Currently, I create and execute content- and PR strategies for clients, including thought leadership and messaging. I also ghostwrite and produce press releases, white papers, case studies and other collateral.