In workplaces across the globe, information overload is weakening office morale. It’s diminishing productivity, quashing inventiveness, and launching industry leaders into spates of poor decision making. The constant stimulation of computer screens and communication devices is causing the mental burnout of employees and managers alike. This is an issue that frustrates knowledge workers in a wide range of industries. And it’s not just the way we receive information that’s a problem – it’s how we deal with it.
Trapped in the Data Smog
In 1997, American writer David Shenk described the “stress, confusion, and even ignorance” people experience when they try to process large quantities of data. He suggested that technology – far from giving us a clearer view of the world – was bombarding us with information at a rate we weren’t equipped to handle. In the nearly two decades since Shenk’s book Data Smog was published, things have only gotten worse. Nowhere are these problems more evident than in the workplace, where “multitasking” (a concept that has been heavily criticized by cognitive scientists in recent years) is the norm. Those who deal with information in decision-making roles are hit particularly hard.
So how do we regain our focus? How do we begin to look out through the data smog and see the big picture? Where do we start?
Media monitoring can help organizations cut through the smog and regain clarity. It can provide decision-makers with the context they need to make truly informed decisions. But, all too often, this powerful tool – like so many tools at the disposal of busy, modern-day professionals – is not used to its full potential. While it may be tempting to plunge into monitoring (tracking terms that represent only your most pressing needs and then waiting for the results to pour in), there is a better way. Various implementation choices – from your source selection, to your keywords and alert frequencies – should be carefully considered if you expect to achieve optimal results.
Your goal should be to find a strategy that allows you to see your organization’s larger context without bombarding you with distracting and irrelevant information. One potential starting point? Consider your industry. This may sound intuitive, but many organizations don’t put enough thought into their broader context. Approaching media monitoring from the point of view of a tech company, or a manufacturing company, or a financial institution (or whichever industry you happen to be a part of) can help you form insights into the motivations of your competitors. It can force you to think beyond the issue you’re facing this week, toward factors that are likely affect you in the near future.
Refocusing with Media Monitoring
Depending on the industry you belong to, source selection could be the most important part of your search strategy. Consider the example of VHX, an American tech startup that streams videos to its users. The founders of VHX would likely want to monitor industry publications (which would inform them of the latest developments in their field), sources related to the entertainment industry (which would help them decide what content they should try to acquire), and changes in government legislation related to their industry.
In a recent blog post on democracy now, Amy Goodman explains that VHX is heavily invested in the outcome of legislation related to net neutrality. While the company’s direct competitors – including Netfilx – can afford to pay for better access to the public, VHX’s livelihood depends on the ongoing existence of net neutrality. Tracking sources that come from disparate source types (which, in this example, include tech magazines, entertainment news/blogs, and government proceedings) can give company decision-makers a clear picture of the state of their industry, enabling them to understand their place within it.
Source selection is an important part of media-monitoring strategy for organizations in many sectors. Consider the government. The sources a government organization selects will vary depending on which level of government that organization belongs to. Municipal government, for example, could glean valuable information about issues such as traffic congestion, sewage back-up, and water contamination by monitoring the right local news sources.
But it would also make sense for municipal officials to monitor federal and provincial government transcripts, as decisions made at the federal and provincial levels have a direct impact on their finances. Intelligent source selection helps combat information overload by enabling users to focus their attention on the content most relevant to their organization. When choosing a media monitoring or government tracking service, you should take into account its ability (or inability) to create custom packages from sources that are not intuitively lumped together.
Keyword selection is another small variable that can greatly impact the quality of your search results. It is particularly useful to have access to a Boolean logic search tool, which can help you filter out irrelevant documents and hone in on the results that matter to you. Consider the following hypothetical situation, set in the retail industry. Imagine it’s the mid-2000s. You’re working in the head office of a bookstore chain. You’ve heard rumblings about a technology that may lead to the publication of electronic books. You know it makes sense to stay informed about issues that affect your industry, so you make it a point to monitor tech blogs. But you’ve never heard the word “Kindle”. Typing the name of a non-existent product into your monitoring system is not a possibility. How are you going to learn more about this technology?
Boolean logic allows you to define relationships between search terms by connecting them with words like “AND”, “NOT” and “OR”. A savvy user can create a sophisticated search by connecting the right keywords. In the bookstore example, this tool (in conjunction with others used in media-monitoring) could help you stay up-to-date on the developing technology that would become Kindle. The information you uncovered through your searches could prepare you to fend against the threat the company poses. On the flip side, you could use your knowledge to approach Kindle about selling their technology before your competitors have had a chance to consider the issue.
Another part of your overall strategy should be choosing the frequency at which you wish to be alerted when new information becomes available. You should, of course, take into account the nature of your organization as well as the type of issues you monitor. If you represent a government body or pharmaceutical company and you are monitoring a time-sensitive issue (such as the fallout from a natural disaster or the side-effects of a new drug), you will probably want to be alerted as soon as new information becomes available. For many other types of organizations, it might be more convenient to receive notifications on a daily or even weekly basis, which will enable you to avoid the problems associated with information overload.
Emerging From the Smog
In a 2005 Slate article revisiting Data Smog, David Shenk blames portions of his book for encouraging an “unhelpful split between the wired life and the unplugged life”. In the article, he insists there is a middle ground. It’s true that technology can cause problems, but it also presents solutions. Shenk points to Google as an example of software that can bring a measure of order to the online experience. Automated-monitoring technologies – already useful tools in the battle against information overload – are improving all the time. At Gnowit, we’re constantly developing new ways to make gathering information online a more productive and rewarding experience. That said, it’s important to master the basics.
If you’re looking for results, a little forethought can go a long way. Grasp the basic features of your media-monitoring tool, then step back to see how you can use them to improve the bigger picture.
Featured Image created by James Marvin Phelps