The other day, I was re-reading an article by David Berlo – the mentor I’ve mentioned before in Inside Out. I was amazed at how current his insights were – considering he wrote it in 1976.
The title of the article is “Right to know, need to learn.” One of Berlo’s key themes appears on the first page like the caution on a pack of cigarettes – “WARNING: Consumption of uncontrolled information is injurious to your health.” His alarm stemmed from a problem that’s familiar to all of us – information overload. And that was in the days before e-mail, social media and multi-tasking – a contemporary euphemism for organizational ADD.
What You Want to Know Can Hurt You
Naturally, no one likes being overwhelmed by more information than they can process. But there’s a cruel irony in human nature that goes back to Adam and Eve when they ate the fruit from the “tree of knowledge.” On one hand, we want to control the information flow so we can manage it. On the other hand, we want to know everything, and we don’t want to be left out of anything that might be important. What’s more, the expectation to know more and process more in the same finite timeframe is rising.
So what’s a body to do?
Start by understanding what Berlo called the “twin tyrannies of slavery and freedom.” Everyone’s clear about the first one. If I’m your slave, you’re in control of every decision and action in my life – short of basic bodily functions. When it comes to information, you control it all. I’m strictly on a “need to know” basis, and I don’t have a “right” to know anything. That kind of tyranny may have been common in boss-subordinate relationships in yesteryear, but for lots of good reasons, it’s rare in organizations today.
Too Many Options Can Leave You Out of Control
What about the “tyranny of freedom,” though? If slavery is bad, then freedom is good, and more is better, right? The answer is yes – to a point. And that point is defined by the limits of a person’s ability to process the options they have before them. After that, people go into overload, and they reach a breaking point. When that happens, it’s a lot like being a slave – you’re out of control. It’s just a different kind of master.
Plug that concept into organizational communication. The flood of information that flies past employees these days can be overwhelming, and the expectations for processing it are unrelenting. While there’s no perfect solution to that quandary, one way to manage it is to adopt Berlo’s policy of “right to know, need to learn.”
Let People Control their Information Consumption
As much as possible, operate on the basis that employees have a right to know virtually anything short of personal files and trade secrets. But don’t use that policy to justify doing information dumps in the name of transparency and unbridled knowledge sharing. Instead, send out only the information that everyone absolutely must have. All other information is made available on a need to learn basis. Then people decide for themselves what to download, and THEY are responsible for deciding when and if they’re going to “consume” that information. Of course, they need to know it’s available and where to get it – and it has to be indexed so it’s easily accessible. Otherwise, the “right to know” policy becomes essentially useless.
It won’t rid organizations of information overload once and for all, but it’s a step in the right direction for giving people greater control over how they process information. It’s also a pretty good blow against the tyranny of freedom.
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