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Skills in Demand: Rethinking Organization and Productivity

It seems that organizational skills aren't what they used to be. While employers still expect college graduates to be organized, a new set of related skills is emerging. The National Association of Colleges and Employers regularly surveys hiring managers to rank the importance of specific qualities and skills when screening applicants. The 2012 survey's list of top personal qualities/skills includes the "ability to plan, organize, and prioritize work" in 5th place, with "ability to obtain and process information" in 4th place. These two areas may merging into one combined skill set as we look for better ways to manage information and increase productivity on-the-job. 

Information Management and Handling

According to a recent article by Michael Schrage, author and research fellow at MIT's Sloan School's Center for Digital Business, "The notion of 'getting organized' has the aroma of anachronism." We still need to be organized – able to find the information, file, or document we need, when we need it – but there are new ways to approach these tasks as the nature of the work itself changes. In the past we relied upon complex filing systems – moving them over the decades from carefully labeled filing cabinets to well-maintained computer folders storing digital versions of all that paper. This is now giving way to skilled searches conducted via advanced applications. Schrage advises that "by combining threading with search, technology makes an economic virtue of virtual disorganization." 

Search and access capabilities are at the heart of these new techniques. In Getting Organized in the Google Era, Douglas Merrill, former Google executive, addresses the capabilities of conducting a digital search for an item as a tool to replace retrieving an item from labeled file folders. There is a learning curve to maximizing these capabilities and the advanced features of various applications. It may take some practice, but developing some new habits can increase your overall productivity, saving time and effort along the way. Here are just a few of the suggested approaches to the new virtual disorganization:

  • Email search: A 2011 study conducted by IBM explored how people "refind" email. The report begins by stating that "We all spend time every day looking for information in our email, yet we know little about this refinding process." By recording long term, daily use of 345 email users, the researchers found that the time spent creating and organizing emails into folders was less efficient than using search features to find specific messages. Instead of creating a series of folders in which you categorize and sort your email, use the search features of your email system to locate individual messages when you need to refer to them. Threaded email views, presented by conversation instead of lists of individual messages, may also be beneficial and aid in refinding.
  • File labeling: A list of "100 Ways to Get More Done" from recommends using "an informative, extensible file naming system that you have internalized rather than spending time creating a folder system." You can then use your operating system's search features "to find files fast, rather than navigating through folder trees." An example of this would be naming your resume "JSmith_TeachingResume_Jan2012.doc" instead of something like "resume2.doc." This essentially gives your search functions more information to work with in terms of keywords to find the exact document you are looking for when you conduct a search, and eliminates the need to create folders labeled Resumes, Teaching, and January 2012
  • File storage: Roadblocks to accessing the information you need, whether it is an email message or a document, can negatively impact your productivity. Merrill's advice includes taking advantage of cloud-based services, (e.g., Gmail, Zoho, Dropbox) that store your information and materials on servers external to your computer's hard drive and make them available to you wherever and whenever you need them and have an Internet connection. 
  • Application synchronization: Your work organization and productivity can be enhanced through applications that provide helpful prompts and anticipate upcoming tasks. The integration of email clients and digital calendars is a good example of this kind of functionality, removing steps involved in opening an email invitation, for instance, then having to open your calendar and manually add the event to your schedule. Email that anticipates additional people you may need to add to a message you are sending is another example. Schrage also refers to "promptware platforms," such as those increasingly found on smartphones, which send us reminders, monitor our activity, and suggest alternative options with increased productivity in mind. 

Marketing Your Skills

If these skills are priorities for your workplace, how can you successfully communicate your related abilities to potential employers? There are several points during the job search process at which you have the opportunity to describe your abilities and accomplishments in the areas of organization and information management:

  • Resume and Cover Letter: Find space on one of these documents to address your experience with using specific technologies and techniques to stay organized, especially if a related qualification is listed in a job vacancy announcement you are responding to.
  • Interview: Use examples of how you stay organized and manage documents and email in your answers questions such as, "Tell me about a time when you had to manage multiple priorities" or "What has been your experience working in a fast paced environment?" Be alert for opportunities to describe situations in which you have applied your technology skills, perhaps modifying your approach, to save time and effort resulting in increased productivity.
  • Portfolio and Social Media: If you have a career portfolio include projects in which you have used organizational techniques with positive results. Add brief narrative descriptions of how you helped co-workers and classmates stay organized with technology for group projects. Also consider sharing your productivity tips and resources with others through your professional social networking accounts.

There are many different organizational strategies to consider – with more on the horizon as the capabilities of technological applications and devices expand. As you explore new ways to manage information at school and work, know that each technique has its own pros and cons. You'll discover that no one approach will work for everyone or in every situation. Have your work habits changed with your increased use of technology? Submit your suggestions to our readers here and help us add to the list presented in this post. 

January 23rd, 2012 written by Staff Writers

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