Downsize your information: How to do it and why

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Statistics and experience demonstrate that 80 percent of what we have we never use. In a time when businesses desperately need to reduce costs and increase productivity, keeping “information clutter” makes no sense. Consider these statistics:

A company that employs 1,000 information workers can expect more than $5 million in annual salary costs to go down the drain because of the time wasted looking for information and not finding it, according to a study by IDC.

A survey of 1,000 middle managers say they spend two hours a day searching for information and 50 percent of the information they find is of no value to them, according to a study by Accenture.

The computer, while originally touted as the ultimate organization tool, has, in reality, allowed us to generate information as never before. In many cases, it has simply increased our ability to create a mess! Whether it’s paper or electronic clutter, the results are the same. Being overloaded with disorganized information costs money, causes unnecessary stress, precipitates poor customer service, and ultimately results in loss of income to the company.

How Does It Happen?

In recent years, a big contributor to information clutter has been people leaving the organization. Few companies have a process in place for assimilating the paper or electronic information left behind by departing employees. Digging through the paper or computer files of a past employee for a crucial document is not appealing to anyone and usually doesn’t happen, so time and money are spent recreating the information.

Unnecessary duplication is a big factor in poorly managed information. Not only does it take up unnecessary space, it creates unnecessary risk of legal liability. In addition, if there are multiple copies of the same document, how can you be sure the document you are retrieving days, weeks, months or even years later, is the most recent? Can your company really afford the space information clutter requires—or the time wasted while people sort through outdated documents?

How many people do you know who have received training on how to manage information? When you think about it, that’s truly ironic, since the ability of an employee to accomplish any task or goal is directly related to their ability to find the information they need when they need it.

Employees’ fear of discarding information—whether it’s in a paper or digital format—is enormous. Whether it's the fear of not being knowledgeable in one's field of expertise, or the fear of being asked by a superior to produce information, the results are the same: overstuffed filing cabinets and hard drives and information clutter!

How Do You Eliminate the Existing Problem?

Ask any 100 employees, "If you had the time, are there papers and files in your office you could comfortably toss?" 99 of them will answer, "Yes,” but who goes to work and says "Well, I don't have anything better to do today. I think I'll clean out the files!" And if they do, most likely someone will say, "What are you doing? We've got to finish that project!”

Companies are often faced with the problem of hundreds and even thousands of boxes of "archives" in storage rooms or offsite locations. When management finally realizes the cost and the risk, they decide they have to do something. By then, the people who created the paper are long gone, and current employees have little energy for making decisions about something that doesn't affect their ability to leave work at 5:30 p.m.

How Do You Prevent It From Happening Again?

While there is no "quick fix" for years of postponed decisions, avoiding the problem in the future is significantly easier. Making a clean-out day an annual event in every organization is essential.

Another simple step to preventing information clutter is eliminating unnecessary duplication of information by implementing "The Originator's Rule:” Whoever generates a document is responsible for its retention. Instead of five people on a project keeping everything, one person should be responsible for the master file. Other people can choose to keep a copy, but will not do so by default because they are afraid to throw it away.

If you don’t already have them, create user-friendly records-retention guidelines and ensure that employees understand and implement them. If you’re not sure how to do it, hire a consultant to help you.

If you want your company to be on the cutting-edge of information management, reduce costs, improve productivity, and minimize liability, identify an employee who will be responsible for overseeing the management of information.

Paper Versus Digital

Companies that manufacture portable electronic devices admit that one the biggest requests of users is printing capability. The portability of paper often makes it more desirable. A printout of a complex e-mail message, which requires thinking and conversations in meetings, and results in handwritten notes, is frequently far more valuable than the original electronic document. On the other hand, the ability to send information electronically, and let the user determine when and if to print it out, offers the best of both worlds.

Before this article reaches your desk, new technologies will be available to store and easily retrieve electronic information. But don't get the cart before the horse. Making the decision of whether to go electronic or remain paper should come after a careful analysis of what information is important to you and your company.

Barbara Hemphill is a leading productivity expert. As a speaker and consultant on organizing, Hemphill helps individuals and organizations create and sustain a productive environment. She is author of the best-selling “Taming the Paper Tiger” book series. In the recently released book, “Bushido Business,” she joins Tom Hopkins, Brian Tracy & Stephen M. R. Covey, sharing how they learned how to be successful. For more information, visit http://www.barbarahemphill.com/.




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