Overlord of Overload

Nathan Zeldes helps people deal with data deluge

Photo: Nathan Zeldes

Off-line: When Nathan Zeldes isn't fighting information overload, he's collecting slide rules and other historical computing artifacts, like this Fuller Calculator.

In the mid-1990s Nathan Zeldes was manager of computing productivity at Intel Corp.'s Israel site. His job, basically, was to figure out how employees could interact more effectively by using computers.

He understood how complicated it was going to be when he realized that e-mail was part of the problem, rather than the solution. For example, there was a senior manager who refused to open any messages that came with attachments. He interviewed the manager and found that hundreds of messages swamped the man every day and he simply couldn't handle the load. Zeldes interviewed other Intel managers, heard similar stories, and set about trying to identify the root causes.

He set up a pilot program within Intel's Israel operations to make e-mail less burdensome. It worked—so well, in fact, that Intel's European offices invited him to come and implement it there. And then it was rolled out to Intel offices worldwide.

The press got wind of this effort in 2001 and revealed Zeldes as the man behind the movement; within weeks, pleas for help began coming in from companies all over the world. An informal network of people started taking the idea of addressing information overload seriously. The group formalized its existence last year as the nonprofit Information Overload Research Group, with Zeldes as president. Zeldes continued to work within Intel on new types of solutions until last year, when he left the company. Today, as a consultant, he helps a variety of organizations deal with information overload.

As Senior Editor Tekla S. Perry discovered, Zeldes practices what he preaches. Thanks to good e-mail habits, Zeldes says, his e-mail traffic is down to a couple of dozen messages a day; he clears his in-box in a preset time slot every afternoon. By moving messages into "to do" folders, he makes sure his in-box never gets bigger than one screenful.

"Working with Zeldes in editing his article for this issue ("Infoglut"), I quickly learned not to expect an instantaneous response to my many e-mails," Perry says. "I simply had to be patient, and I'd inevitably hear back from him within 24 to 36 hours. Which, as it turned out, was just fine."

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