Dealing With Data Overload

By Edward Cone  |  Posted 01-27-2009

Dealing With Data Overload

Brunson White is overloaded.

"I've got 4,000 names in my BlackBerry, but I don't know 4,000 people," says White, CIO of Energen, a $1.45 billion energy company headquartered in Birmingham, Ala. "I've also got stacks of business cards in my office. Who are all these people?"

Too much information, and always more on the way: The surfeit is a reality of modern life, but few feel the weight more than CIOs. Waves of data flood their in-boxes and applications, threaten the productivity of their shops and the enterprise as a whole, and chase them home at night.

White is experimenting with LinkedIn to address the deluge of contacts. But more issues await at every turn.

If data isn't managed well, and managed at scale, it can disrupt the entire company. "Everybody has information overload," says Sam Aparicio, CTO of Angel.com, a McLean, Va.-based unit of MicroStrategy that sells interactive voice-response and call-center software. "The No. 1 job of a CIO is employee productivity." The people charged with data strategy, he says, "have a very special mission" to make sure that staffers can actually get some work done.

Sometimes tamping down information eruptions can feel like playing whack-a-mole, with similar problems popping up again and again. Mike Gabbei, CIO of Celadon Group, a $580 million trucking company based in Indianapolis, responded to department heads and users who wanted alerts pushed to them instead of sifting through data. "Then they can't handle the alerts," he says. "Just pushing them an e-mail alert means they get 2,000 e-mails instead of 1,000."

Now Gabbei is using business intelligence tools that flag exceptions to usual workflow. This, too, could bring "an inundation of information," he acknowledges, but that should subside as people get used to it.

Some solutions go against conventional wisdom. The Internet turns everyone into a researcher, but Energen maintains a corporate library staffed by a professional with a master's degree in library science. White says it's worth the cost to get the right information to the right people in the most efficient way possible. "They're better at finding [information] than I am, and it makes sense to leverage that," he says.

The Heart of the Problem

One of the prime culprits behind information overload is also one of the most basic technologies around: e-mail. Reducing the amount of it, extracting useful information from it and finding more efficient ways to manage it may sound like dry engineering topics, but people get emotional about them. "I've occasionally been thanked for work I've done over the years, but I've only been hugged by a group of people once--when we put in spam filtering," says White.

Energen instituted a policy that may sound counter-intuitive: It requires that every e-mail message sent and delivered be archived for seven years. That way, the company does not have to depend on an individual's discretion to figure out whether or not a particular message should be saved. Instead, workers can delete messages, knowing they can always retrieve them. "People and enterprise software are expensive, but everything else is pretty cheap," says White, who thinks storage and retrieval costs are worth the investment.

At Angel.com, Aparicio uses wikis and social media tools to track his projects, as well as projects for various teams, and to see who owes him what and by when. Information on deliverables creates a trail of documentation. With the wiki, information is posted and shared by default, and Aparicio can check it as part of his regular workflow. The software also allows him to use instant messaging for informal conversations and for persistent topics like operations, which run live all day.

Even with the e-mail abated, the amount of information Aparicio accesses has, if anything, increased. "The possibility of missing important information that you must respond to is part of what creates the overload," he says. That stress is ameliorated, as the wiki is a less intrusive way of being copied.

The software allows Aparicio to create different filters through which he can view information--from a project perspective, say, or that of an individual. "Reducing the amount of information is something that's outside my control," he says. "What's effective is creating filters that match my priorities."

Taking a Purposeful Approach

Data overload can be a very personal thing. "One real problem for a CIO is having time to think," Energen's White says. "We're supposed to be strategists. If I answered the telephone every time it rang, I'd never have time to think about anything strategic."

White is purposeful about creating time for himself. Caller ID is one of his most important tools. "It sounds horrible, but it's the truth," he says. White doesn't work in an executive conclave; he works alongside his team. That helps him stay in the loop, but it also means he has to close the door sometimes to get any work done.

He also manages his data inputs. "I stopped reading industry publications in their paper versions, and I get the majority of information via RSS feeds," White says. He also consumes videos and podcasts at home or in flight to limit the time he spends in front of a screen and to learn by listening, the method by which he is most comfortable.

Angel.com's Aparicio believes that senior managers should model productivity for the rest of the organization. "No other executive can do that the way you can," he says. "A lot of CIOs do things that hurt others' productivity--saving a few dollars on a smaller monitor, saying you can't work remotely. But there are people in the organization who are solving these problems better than others; find them and spread it around."

One way Celadon Group's Gabbei addresses the issue is by embracing his own inner geek. "My job is a hobby in itself," he says. "I enjoy reading trade magazines on weekends and in the evening. I'll put e-mails that are not pressing into my weekend folder."

The reality of life in an always-on world, Gabbei says, is getting e-mails from management at 10 p.m. "If we're not on 24/7, then it's 16/7," he adds.