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Information overload: Taking back control


Information overloadWith all the documentation that funnels in and out of HR, it’s no surprise that information overload is a big issue to be tackled. Clive Lewis reports on a dynamic strategy that can help HR executives who are drowning in data.

When it comes to information overload be in no doubt – we all sleep with the enemy. HR professionals aren’t alone in this regard but let’s face it we love 24/7 access, we are obsessed with technology and we spend most of the day, and some of the night, texting and emailing, messaging and surfing. We aren’t victims in this scenario, we are contributors to it.

“On their own none of these techniques are new but put together they can help eliminate overload.”

But given that we are information addicts there is still a pressing issue: how do we harvest the knowledge we need that is vital for our work without getting waylaid, diverted or swamped by information we don’t want? The answer is to adopt those thinking and learning tools that can best help us navigate and evaluate the constant glut of data we are faced with. That’s what can help us take back control of our lives.

Dynamic evaluation techniques and fast reading skills

The approach which can help HR professionals to sift through the new reports, policy documents, legal missives and management data is based around dynamic evaluation techniques and fast reading skills. On their own none of these techniques are new but put together they can help eliminate overload.

In essence these tools and techniques can be applied at distinct stages in order to help people who are drowning in data to stay ahead of the game.

1. Information arrives and fast assessment takes place

When you first receive information you do not know whether the document, report, file or email that you have been sent requires your attention or not. So the first decision you have to reach is to find out whether it needs to be read, needs to be delegated or can be ditched.

To help with this assessment I suggest you use some specific tools such as how to make a fast initial evaluation, how to conduct a rapid preread and how to draft a skeleton Mind Map. By using these tools you can establish what the documents are about and whether they need your further consideration.

Here, for example, is an outline of one of the techniques – how to make a fast initial evaluation of a document:

  • Take a document you’ve been sent and look at the front cover. What does it convey?

  • Now look at the back cover or at anything which provides a summary. What does it tell you?

  • Consider the table of contents. What do the headings suggest it is about?

  • And finally read the introduction and the final paragraph of the document. This should give you a good idea of the scope of the material.
  • With this understanding ask yourself whether the docuument is interesting or relevant. If it’s neither then do you need to pass it on to someone else or can you bin it? Make the decision now.

    2. Building on your preliminary understanding

    Let’s presume you now have preliminary understanding of the document and have decided it needs more attention. Now you have to decide how much more you need to know and use some of your other reading tools to give you the depth of understanding of the document that’s appropriate.

    “Use some of your other reading tools to give you the depth of understanding of the document that’s appropriate.”

    Your tools in this process are skimming, scanning and speed-reading including a detailed Mind Map. The critical understanding here is that while some documents may just need a skim read you may also choose to go through others multiple times, building up greater knowledge each time. This process of assessing as you go along is key for those who don’t want unnecessary information clogging up their inboxes.

    Again to give you an insight into one of the techniques involved in this approach let me outline the process of skimming.

    This technique is designed to help you catch the headlines, identify specific areas of interest and/or get a sense of the story being told. When you skim through a document you are flicking through the pages fast – looking for those devices put into the text by authors as signposts for their readers. These include chapter headings, sub-headings, illustrations, summaries and conclusions. They also include pull out boxes or panels, case studies, quotes and bullet points. Again once you have skimmed your document you will have determined what parts of it are relevant and you can then use other reading techniques to deepen your understanding.

    3. New knowledge is assimilated

    The assessment and reading techniques that you use in this process will lead you to a state where knowledge is captured and assimilated. Importantly you will have generated, as part of this process, a robust review strategy (your detailed Mind Map) which will have clarified and coded all the key information you need for easy recall. The drafting of your Mind Map is also a signal that there is nothing more to do with this document. It will give you confidence that you have covered the ground you need and that you are free to move on.

    This approach really can help you eliminate information overload. It allows HR executives (who have to handle vast amounts of information) to blast through their in-trays and to free up their time. This makes it an essential skill for anyone in the HR community.

    Clive Lewis is MD of illumine. Mind Mapping® is a registered trademark of the Buzan organisation

    One Response

    1. Not Only Reading, But Writing Needs Attention
      Clive’s article is correct, we need to evaluate and assimilate data quickly and act upon it; action – bin or scan and file.

      There’s also the way we write that needs overhauling. Unnecessary messages need to be sent or we use automation for routine tasks.

      One way of writing policies and procedures is to use Horn’s Information Mapping methodology which. It will also make evaluation and assimilation easier and quicker. (See

      I believe also that we need to write more succinctly. New standard ways of business writing need to be developed that save time and words.

      It’s an interesting area that needs a lot more work.


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