Opinion Leaders: Waste Time Faster

Five years ago, who would have thought that so many managers would have found so much time to sit behind keyboard and screen writing and reading so much email? The answer is precious few. The notion would have been seen as near preposterous: where would they find the time to engage in this foreign activity, the obvious domain of secretaries and PAs?

So, what happened? new ‘wow’ technology? faster and better way to communicate? Is it? True, it’s fast and often convenient and efficient. But consider for moment the daily volume of emails most recipients wade through (not counting spam), with little hope of reading them all properly. What happens to the ‘really’ urgent ones buried in this daily avalanche of so-called communications? All this raises the question whether the technology is busily engaged in defeating itself. Who was it said that managers increasingly manage their email more than they manage the business?

So, that’s email. The mobile phone is little different. Our quest for accessibility and instancy has allowed technology, known for its facility to intrude where others couldn’t, to open the floodgates. Managers now daren’t switch off anything in case they miss something. Few realise what they really miss or appreciate how the process is affecting their business and personal lives.

How has all this come about and what are the long-term effects? Time compression – to give it name – is chronic disease, affecting many organisational layers. It has already adversely affected the quality of decision making, priority setting, strategic and planned approaches to safeguarding the future, and time to think. These are symptoms of rapidly increasing trend toward ‘short-termism’ – exemplified in quarterly profit statements – the ad hoc business lifestyle, acting in isolation and the move to the 24/7 week. Somebody in Canada calculated that email alone has added two hours work to manager’s business day and that the mobile phone has hijacked whatever little spare time there was for thinking and planning.

There is technology progression which, in good part, explains it. In the business world communications progressed from telephone and telegraph to telex to fax to mobile phone and now to email and text messaging. At each step accessibility to the individual increased and communications seemed more urgent but, significantly, not necessarily more important. Each step finally suffered from saturation until the next technology came along. This has not yet happened to email and the mobile phone. Whatever this next technology may be, if we are not careful we shall be out of control.

Management has now moved to responding instead of initiating. consistently responding mode leads to loss of control over one’s destiny. And consistently successful companies are characterised by sound strategy development – not developed on the fly; taking initiatives – not waiting for things to happen and respond to; thoughtful actions – giving themselves time to think; and plenty of person to person communication. Activity unfortunately is widely confused with effectiveness, though high levels of activity run counter to high levels of effectiveness. Technology might well enable us to waste time faster! Think on the consequences of that.

Few managers will have escaped the effects of time compression and many will have assessed the symptoms and wonder how to break the vicious circle. It is, in fact, not difficult to switch off mobile phone or limit its use. It is not difficult to ban internal email within the one location, except where it is the most efficient tool. And it should be easy to tell people to start talking to each other again!

A Health Canada study looked at the more far-reaching effects of the use and abuse of email. If nothing else scares the pants off managers, this should. Email, says the study, plays major role in workplace stress. Instead of making life easier, there was widespread sense of loss of control of (individual’s) lives and of having become slaves of the keyboard. Another Canadian finding states that email use and abuse have now encroached on our leisure time.

One wonders what would have happened if the telephone had been invented after email; perhaps we’d all be talking to each other!

John Vandersyp, AFNZIM, is an Auckland business adviser, specialising in strategy, organisation and profit improvement.

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