Basex, an East Coast business research firm, has named the problem of the year as “information overload”. By this they are referring to the growing number of communication and collaboration channels that people are required to work with on a daily basis, and say that the duplication of information across channels, and the cost of interruptions from this increasing plethora of tools is costing the US economy $650 billion a year in lost productivity (see New York Times Blog), which is calculated based on interruptions from phone calls, emails and IMs consumming 28% of a knowledge workers day (see eWeek).
I think the term that they’ve used is the wrong one for the problem, and I also think that their analysis reflects a lack of understanding about how knowledge workers work. Let’s take each in turn.
What’s The Real Problem Here?
The real problem is the proliferation of new standalone tools that become additive to existing ways of communication and collaboration. When IM is added to email and then comes wiki work and blog reading, people are forced to deal with new places to get and work with information. These tools are often additive; when IM is introduced, some email traffic shifts naturally to IM, thus taking away from email, but just because you are online and apparently available, additional conversations take place that otherwise would not have happened. And, equally, conversations that might have taken 3 minutes by telephone increase to 10 or 15 minutes by IM, because of multi-tasking and the slower rate at which people type compared to talking.
Back in 2004 I wrote about this proliferation of end-user tools for communication and collaboration, and how this would lead to bad things for end-users, and now we are seeing it happen. Vendors of collaboration tools need to do a better job of delivering tools that integrate currently disparate communication channels into a single integrated client, and auto-arranging different streams of communication into related project groupings. Rationalization and elimination of tools should be a big focus for IT. There should only be one IM platform in any organization, not multiples. People shouldn’t have to deal with multiple collaborative workspace products on a daily basis; just one interface that renders different tools within an integrated whole.
That new tools are additive rather than reductionary is a problem in most organizations, although interestingly Groove Networks claimed the opposite. Before they were purchased by Microsoft, Groove claimed that the usage of its own tools internally had resulted in a migration of communication and interaction largely away from email and into a variety of Groove shared spaces. That left very little email to deal with, and even then, there was a clear and easy way to shift email from Outlook or Notes into a Groove space. The tool was eliminative, not additive.
So, in my view, Basex has chosen the wrong term for 2008; rather than the year of information overload, it should be the year of communication coordination complexity. Or the year of urgency addiction, but according to the problem they are trying to describe, it’s not “information overload”.
Does the Analysis Stack Up?
I think, too, that Basex portrays a lack of understanding in saying that dealing with email and IM takes users away from their “primary tasks”, or that dealing with interruptions from phone calls, email and IM consumes 28% of the users day, and that this is thus lost productivity. Most of us have to work with others to get our jobs done and to move forward the work of the organization. For this we need to communicate. In past business realities we would meet in person, but in a world that is transacting business at an increased rate and where the people we work with on joint projects are not in the same location, much of our interaction becomes mediated by written text. And so while knowledge workers have primary tasks to do, the sending and receiving of email, or the having of a IM conversation with another, or answering a phone call from a colleague, or keeping up with blogs related to our work … all of these activities are core things to primary tasks.
As a related point, if you ask senior managers what they think about interruptions, many will say that they don’t see a constant stream of people and interaction requests as interruptions but rather as their work. That is why they are there … to talk to people, to coordinate with others, to learn what’s going on.
Let’s consider the robustness of the analysis in another way. If phone calls, email and IM are the problem, let’s get rid of them. People would therefore, according to the Basex logic, suddenly be able to reclaim 28% of their daily work time, and thus the US economy would be $650 billion better off in terms of reclaimed productivity. Wouldn’t that rather result in the grinding to a halt of the whole US economy in short order?
The Basex thinking does not leave me convinced.
What Does Dealing with Information Overload Look Like?
If we broaden the analysis and thinking away from interruptions to dealing with information overload true and proper, what do we get?
One thing is the need for people and teams to get better at sharing knowledge that has been synthesized rather than merely being repeated.
Have we taught knowledge workers the process of how to take a collection of data points and create a synthesis of those?
Do people know how to build understanding over time by comparing and contrasting new information against what they already know?
Do people have the technology tools at their disposal to do this effectively?
Or do we merely expect that people will create “folders” of related information, at the page or article level, but never do the hard work of integrating the different points of view? It is hard work — it requires the embrace of effective habits of personal knowledge management, and the continual seeking out of new and divergent viewpoints against which to test our current knowledge.
Among other things, this is what dealing with “information overload” is really about.
What’s your take on the Basex study?