About 3,000 years ago, the wise King Solomon wrote: Of making many books, there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.
I suspect that if most modern executives could send a message back to Solomon’s time (and don’t bet that modern technology won’t find a way), they’d say, Your Majesty, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
In truth, today’s executive is in the center of an information explosion, and bringing order out of this chaos would tax the wisdom of Solomon. More than 2,000 books are published every week. More than 1,600 daily newspapers spew out 62.3 million copies a day in the United States alone. The nation’s top 100 magazines produce about 240 million copies per issue.
But this is only the beginning. Almost every office has its fax machine, spouting messages throughout the day. Computerized data bases offer libraries of information that can be tapped with a modem plugged into a telephone jack.
You can’t get away from the telephone. It’s in your office, home, hotel suite and car. In most cases, your cell phone goes wherever you go! Some 16 million miles of fiber optic cable spin a communications web around the globe, and each cable can handle 10 million communications at a time.
Much of the exploding information is highly useful. A great deal is worthless to you. How do you separate the wheat from the chaff? Equally important, how do you organize the information and put it together in a meaningful pattern?
We recommend to our clients ten strategies for coping with the explosion. Briefly:
Strategy 1: Have an information plan.
The plan should provide a concise statement of the information you need to fulfill your corporate mission.
It should designate individuals who are responsible for gathering, processing, updating and making available the required data.
The plan should also provide a practical system for key people to gain access to the information quickly and easily.
It’s useful to provide for a formal periodic review of all information requirements and all systems for collecting information.
Strategy 2: Focus on action, not on reports.
Every report is an overhead expense. A useless report is a dead weight. So before you request a report, ask yourself, Is it necessary? If it isn’t, save the staff time and expense.
Useless reports encourage mediocrity. I’ve known middle-management people who spent more time filling out reports than they did doing their jobs.
I’ve known others who specialized in doing things that made them look good on reports but contributed little toward corporate objectives. If you don’t want to be blown away by the information explosion, make sure your middle managers understand that they are being evaluated on what they actually accomplish and not on what they write in their reports.
Strategy 3: Simplify.
Some corporations have reports to explain other reports, meetings to figure out what happened at other meetings, and vast data banks of information they’ve never used.
Don’t unnecessarily complicate the gathering and storing of information. The simpler it is, the more meaningful it is to more people.
The first step in simplifying is to focus clearly on your objectives. Decide what you want to accomplish. Then make sure that the only information that comes to you is the information you need to make rational and solid decisions.
Strategy 4: Clarify.
Teach your staff to prepare reports and data that are simple and easy to understand. Don’t tolerate jargon. Show that you value clear, precise language that everybody understands. Encourage your staff not to overcommunicate. Let them know that they don’t have to cover every possible detail, contingency, or outcome.
Strategy 5: Qualify.
You qualify information by deciding whether it will be useful to you. Ninety percent of the information we wade through will be useless. Selecting the 10% becomes a challenge. The secret: Look for the specific. Discard all generalities and focus on the particular information that might have practical application in your business.
Strategy 6: Systemize the routine.
An executive should not be saddled with routine, repetitive tasks. That’s staff work. Teach your staff the most efficient and cost-effective way to accomplish such tasks, and get them to follow the routine invariably. This leaves you more time for creative thinking.
For instance, most business correspondence is routine and falls into specific categories. An executive shouldn’t have to dictate a separate response to each inquiry. Instead, you might load some standard letters into the computer or some standard paragraphs that might be inserted into appropriate letters.
Strategy 7: Process papers; don’t just shuffle them.
Don’t just lay papers aside and come back to them later. That’s paper shuffling. When I go through my mail each day, I do three things:
1. With each letter, I decide whether this letter is something I will act upon or whether it will be referred to someone else for action.
2. I write notes on all letters I want others to handle, and distribute them immediately.
3. I dictate responses to all mail I plan to answer. As I dictate letters, I file all those I have a good reason to keep and I discard the rest.
When I’ve finished this process, my desk is cleared off and I’m ready to get on with other meaningful projects.
Strategy 8: Update, then eliminate.
The sharpest executives I know keep their files and data banks as lean as they keep their payrolls. They do this by updating, then eliminating.
Each time a book, magazine, report or other communication falls on your desk, ask yourself, “Why might I need this and how might I use it? If you can’t think of a specific answer, throw it out.
Strategy 9: Constantly synthesize information.
Synthesizing data means pulling together all its parts to form a whole system of information and ideas you can act upon. Have your staff put this information together in the context of the corporate mission, constantly synthesizing it to keep all divisions and departments informed.
Synthesizing involves three important considerations:
1. Accessibility. Everyone who needs the information should be able to get to it quickly and easily.
2. Categorizing. The categories in which the information is arranged should make sense to all who will be using it.
3. Cross-referencing. The information should be cross-referenced so that it can be accessed by all relevant contexts.
Strategy 10: Educate your people to control data.
People in middle and lower management positions need to be freed of the paper burden just as upper management does. Teaching them to manage information will result in more productivity and more creative thinking.
The experts tell us that human knowledge is doubling every 32 hours. That’s a lot of information to keep track of. You can keep track of it more easily if you determine what information you need and make sure it’s available when you need it.
The information you don’t need can be routed to those who can use it. If it’s information nobody needs, then it should be routed to the landfill or purged from your electronic files.
Nido Qubein is president of High Point University and chairman of Great Harvest Bread Company with 200 stores in 41 states. He has given more than 5,000 presentations to audiences worldwide and has authored more than two dozen books and audio programs on leadership, sales, communication, and achievement. For more information on Nido Qubein and his learning resource tools, visit his web site at www.nidoqubein.com.