Why are workers struggling with cognitive overload? How do we recognise this issue, and what tools can overcome it?
We all know that life is changing at an accelerated pace and this is unlikely to slow down whether we like it or not. At Saffron, we’re interested in identifying solutions to how this pace of change affects learners and organisations so that in a complex world, things can be made simpler and more effective. In particular, we are looking at how the changing world affects working lives, performance and the learning of new skills. Let’s start with the background of why cognitive overload has crept up on us.
An abundance of information and a culture of immediacy
The digital revolution has placed the internet at the centre of our lives. We don’t just socialise and relax in a digital space, we work in one too. Our lives are becoming fluid, with work and non-work converging. The demand for convenience grows with technology’s ability to provide it, creating a culture of immediacy in the consumer market. We want dinner, we use Deliveroo. For music there’s Spotify, for TV there’s Netflix or on-demand TV and even more common is the use of AI in the home – the use of Echo or Alexa as a virtual assistant to control the temperature in your home, answer your doorbell and so on.
The amount of data associated with our new digital infrastructure is unimaginable. It flows in every direction. From your actions being recorded and processed by a computer brain, to the sheer know-how we need to acquire to stay on top of the digital output that is being produced.
Similarly, to stay afloat businesses must be agile and so must their workforce. That can be extremely difficult for some organisations to achieve. How do businesses mobilise strategy quickly and effectively when they have a large workforce? New technologies that brings efficiency appears to be the panacea that most companies foresee as the way of holding on but then they need to implement that and see if it reaps rewards. But how does this affect the workforce?
The consequences of rapid societal and technological changes in the workplace
If you take this whirlwind of change and factor in political and economic uncertainty, it’s little wonder that job security is plummeting as mental health issues are on the rise.
As digital systems constantly shift beneath our feet, the rapid change leaves some workers out in the cold and potentially redundant, while others have a vastly increased workload. Getting things done during periods of change is difficult, leading to frustration and inefficiencies in transition periods. This is the stage we’re at globally – right now, productivity worldwide has dropped to 13%. Do not adjust your set – you read correctly, only 1 in 10 workers are ‘committed to their jobs and likely to be making positive contributions to their organizations’.
Information silos and passing the buck
The silos we’re talking about represent the stagnation of corporate intelligence, kneecapping company-wide productivity. When different departments or individuals within an organisation hoard their resources, tasks, and intelligence, they function as an independent body rather than a unit in a smoothly operating machine.
But silos are not necessarily caused by selfish or territorial behaviour from employees. That would be an easy way to dismiss the problem. Rather, they are a symptom of structural issues.
It’s a response to an overload of work, an overload of data, an overload of responsibility. Apply too much pressure and fail to provide the necessary support and your poor squeezed and anxious worker bees will complete their tasks in a totally blinkered manner. They won’t share their skills, they won’t collaborate, and they won’t be working for the greater good. Matthew Toren pointed out that: ‘The most painful and silo-revealing phrase you’ll ever hear is, “My team did that too. I thought it was our responsibility.”’, and this is the behaviour you will see.
This complete vacuum of confidence is fatal for accountability. It’s not my problem. Right now, Wells Fargo is embroiled in a devastating corporate fraud case that’s running into billions of dollars in fines. Employees were pressured to reach impossible targets, leading to accounts being falsely opened. Would this have happened if anyone stuck their head out and asked this simple question: Why are we opening all these accounts for this client?
The Needs of the Modern Workplace
So, what’s the solution? We should consider what the modern workforce needs. Since this is generally needed at scale; let’s look at technology – although non-technological solutions including HR policies etc have a place. And we must be careful to avoid quick-fixes, leaving everyone to walk away feeling cheated. Instead, let’s investigate the behavioural science of why productivity is plummeting and look at precisely how these issues can be addressed with learning technology.
So, the modern workplace is one where information is critical. Knowledge and training are extremely valuable commodities that need to reliably reach precise segments of the workforce to close skill gaps. Success here results in the tumultuous nature of the markets being harnessed for good, without swathes of an organisation being left behind to work backwards. Bells will ring out and we’ll all join arms to celebrate a new era of transparency and togetherness. The robots will help us to manage the great flow of data and resources.
What is needed is a training and knowledge management system that is in the background, available on-demand, and personalised. It needs to be accessible across all stages of an organisation. Overstressed workers might think there’s too much information, too little time. But they’re wrong. Here’s why.
It’s not about time, it’s about cognitive overload
Cognitive load theory was developed in the late 1980s out of a study of problem-solving by John Sweller. What’s that got to do with our data flooded, disillusioned workforce? Well, it’s because they are suffering from cognitive overload. It’s a rather simple process.
Recently, we’ve learned that there are two parts of the brain responsible for learning. First is the working memory (or short-term memory). The working memory is a wonderful tool, and it processes everything that we learn and experience. However, it has a limit. It can hold 4-5 bits of information at one time and that information only lasts about 10 seconds. If you feed too much into the working memory, it’s just going to come out the other end. You’ve got a hole in your bucket.
The suave older sibling to the working memory is the long-term memory. Here, information is structured and organised. The long-term memory has an unlimited capacity, and loans the knowledge it stores back to the working memory to help make sense of incoming information. Moreover, the working memory helps to construct schemas, which are the mental structures used to store knowledge in the long-term memory. It’s a knockout partnership.
Memory falling apart
When the working memory is overwhelmed by information, it can’t work in tandem with the long-term memory to make use of the brain’s incredible potential for learning. Instead, the data floods out, and all you’ve created is stress and confusion. What you do know is siloed as a defensive reaction to the pressure to learn in impossible circumstances. Example: the new blockchain CRM system makes no more sense than when it was first introduced, and your chest tightens when the boss asks you where the quarterly reports are? Haven’t you read the user manual? Slow down, take a deep breath.
Sweller argued that instructional design can be used to reduce cognitive load in learners. Let’s make cognitive load theory work for us, rather than against us.
Cognitive ease with Point of Need support
Cognitive ease occurs when absorbing and processing information is effortless and straight forward, without stress or frustration. This allows time for learning skills and growing. When you create a situation wherein the learner can self-serve their training needs, and they have unlimited potential to revise and reinforce their learning – then you’re creating cognitive ease.
Point of need tools can facilitate cognitive ease by providing localised help, offering concise and specific information when it’s needed and giving opportunities for repeated practice and feedback. They also make mundane tasks more efficient and reduce frustration while creating time for learning and creativity and boosting workplace performance and productivity.
For example, Saffron eaSe is an unobtrusive assistant that sits on the user’s computer, able to be pulled up to offer help at any time. It will be populated with useful data about any systems, processes or technologies that the user needs to be able to use to get their job done.
A helping hand
Let’s go back to that blockchain nightmare your boss has been bothering you about. How do you create reports on it? Where do you import the CSV files? eaSe would walk you through each of these issues, at any time, and it won’t be a time-consuming process. It offers just the help you need, just when you need it. This controlled learning process creates learning that, according to Daniel Kahneman’s framework for cognitive ease, ‘feels familiar, feels true, feels good, feels effortless’. So suddenly, the influx of new data and technologies stops being something to fear, and instead feels like a world of potential.
Point of Need tools are predicted to create some stunning improvements in performance. Remember the 13% employee engagement statistic the world is currently facing? Using Point of Need tools, employee engagement shoots up by 84%. Revenue per employee goes up by 218%, and performance per employee can be up by 92%.
The workplace is changing rapidly, and we need to think about ways to adapt. The mass of information in the modern workplace, largely generated by digital resources, can be beneficial or it can be destructive to workers’ self-esteem. If you are not equipped with the right tools, the volume of data will result in cognitive overload rather than successful education or training. This is particularly true in a larger organisation, where there is less scope for repeated personal assistance. Ultimately the exponential growth and saturation of digital technologies is having a counterintuitive effect where they damage human confidence and ability.
However, the same mechanisms that create this problem (demand for convenience, a great volume of data, fixed nature of human learning) can be used to empower the workforce. Point of Need tools allows the learner to work in a condition of cognitive ease, where they can confidently gain skills and manage new systems. This reverses the global trend of declining productivity, firmly reinstating technology as an ally to business performance.