For my day off, I finally got to see a movie: “Up in the Air”. Yes, I know we’re a little behind, but we don’t get out much. Now, I’m not a film critic, but I am a technology critic. And as manager of a team that covers enterprise unified communication technology, I can attest that “Up in the Air” is an anti-web conferencing, pro airline movie. Specifically, it asserts:
1) that frequent travelers may be sacrificing a sense of place for superficial rewards
Despite the deeper message of sacrifice, the movie is decidedly pro travel at the surface level. It was clearly sponsored by American Airlines, Hilton, and Hertz, who all get repeated, prime placement. And, unlike most travel movies, the frustrations and humiliations of travel never show up here. Look to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (or the Seinfeld episode with the rental car counter) for that side. In this movie, George Clooney’s character never has a flight delayed, unidentified stains on his hotel room sheets, or an apathetic rental car counter employee.
2) that technology inappropriately bleeds the humanity out of communications
What mega-corporations don’t get placement in this movie? Cisco, IBM, and Microsoft. Communications technologies take a beating in this movie. Most phone conversations go badly. Crude IM usage is repeatedly spoofed, as with a break up via text message. But the most scorn is heaped on web conferencing. The movie starts with the layoff consulting firm deciding to replace in person notifications with layoffs through web conferences. There are clearly times when web conferencing is appropriate and times when it isn’t. This is a humorously bad choice of when to use it.
Seriously, I thought it was a fantastic movie. I highly recommend it. If you don’t work for the web conferencing divisions of Cisco, IBM, or Microsoft.
Picture this situation: a businessperson on a plane checks her email inbox on her laptop and finally goes bonkers at how the emails keep piling up and never end. The constrained ability to move on the plane and similar lack of control over incoming email leads to a sudden desire to escape. A nearby passenger tries to shake this woman to her senses, but then another passenger wants to try too. Now, here comes a professional information overload pundit! The pundit comes over to shake her up and try to get her to snap out of it by realizing what “we” are doing to “ourselves” with this constant need to communicate. But then more pundits show up – a book author here, a consultant there, a blogger/columnist next – all trying to outdo themselves on how to shake this woman to her senses.
Well, you don’t need to picture this in your head. Just click on the link below for an accurate recreation of this event.
Yeah, it’s just like that. While they all seem to want to help, the sheer mass of them and desire to out-shake the last pundit makes them seem a bit too gleeful for the opportunity to slap her around. It’s not tough to slap someone around on information overload – most people are guilty of poor attention management processes and most people feel info-stress from time to time. It turns out, it’s so easy to slap people around on information overload that it’s actually fun – even cathartic! If only her seatmate would have tried to talk to her instead of slapping her down, this might have ended better …
“Not So Fast: Sending and receiving at breakneck speed can make life queasy; a manifesto for slow communication”, By John Freeman (WSJ 8/22/09 p W3), is yet another “shake you to your senses” information overload 101 article. I found it noteworthy because it explicitly defines itself as a manifesto, two years after I explicitly noted that getting away from manifestos is what is needed to make the best of the proliferation of information and content while minimizing its worst effects on businesses and workers. (Note: I avoided guru-tense and didn’t word that as “while minimizing the disastrous impact this is having on us and our ability to think and reason …”).
I will read the book because it’s my job to read these things, but there’s no need to wait since a good book already exists on the need to slow down: “In Praise of Slowness”, by Carl Honore (my review is here).
Here is the comment I entered to the article on WSJ.com:
This is a very good information overload primer – particularly the parts about making conscious decisions about where the “finite well of our attention” is focused. But what Mr. Freeman has done is provide a manifesto at precisely the time that the opposite is needed: for all the information overload pundits to put the evangelism aside and focus on a path to improvement that embraces both sides of this debate.
Getting heads nodding by describing what “we” are doing to “ourselves” (always in guru-tense) is easy. Nomiki (who has commented a few times here) shows that not everyone should be included in that “we” as some have learned to adapt their expectations and tool usage to minimize their info-stress while not demonizing or sacrificing what the information age has to offer.
After my first year of covering information overload I recognized that the evangelical aspect of the narrative that “Not So Fast” follows is counterproductive. In fact, Mr. Freeman’s manifesto was published two years (give or take a week) after I published my “Manifesto-free definition of attention management”.
An excerpt: “The debate is over whether we are at a tipping point that necessitates a radical change in approach – an ‘information intervention’ – or just seeing an incremental but manageable increase in information velocity. Those who argue it is an incremental increase often disregard the rest of attention management as the result of unwarranted alarmist thinking.
That’s unfortunate because this emerging field has a lot to offer regardless of whether one believes that we are at a hand-wringing crisis moment or not … What is needed, then, is a manifesto-free definition of attention management. One that doesn’t require purchase of a belief system to understand.”
For those interested in a manifesto-free approach to this situation:
Note: This is a cross-posting from the Collaboration and Content Strategies blog.
The inaugural Information Overload Awareness Day is being held on Wednesday (8/12/09). And I’m dreading it. That may seem odd since I cover this topic as an industry analyst and any additional attention on my space is a good thing. Also, I agree that too many people aren’t aware of how far down the slippery slope they’ve gone in terms of being interruptible at all times and trying to follow ever more information sources and communication channels.
The reason I’m dreading this is that most of the material I’ve seen from the folks putting this on overstates the problem while understating the solution. So on one hand the problem is inflated to encompass insidious damage to our (worded in first-person guru tense) psyche, attention spans, and well-being, not to mention about $1 trillion per year (I dispute this). And on the other hand the solutions offered up are menial: don’t use “reply all”, try e-mail-free Fridays (yuk), and a smattering of time management and e-etiquette tips. That’s all fine for individuals (I offer my own personal attention management tips here, and Lifehack.org and 43 folders are full of tips). But a systemic problem requires a systemic solution.
To their defense, I’m not the target audience for this information. As it says in the title, the point of the day is “awareness”. To make people aware it helps to shake people awake with a narrative tying the rise of communication technology to ADD to the broad arc of information work. I’ve given that presentation myself and, I’ll be honest, it’s rewarding to do! I got a very good response too, but after seeing many others do the same thing I realized it’s like shooting fish in a barrel.
So I’m already aware. In fact, I’ve become a connoisseur of info overload articles, books, and presentations. I feel like a movie critic who has seen every fish-out-of-water, buddy cop movie, making him disgruntled when a new release rehashes the cliche without offering anything new (even though the audience consists of people who are seeing the cliche for the first time and like it).
The tough part is not putting on a day where you raise awareness of information overload, but figuring out what to do the day after. That’s the day when the evangelical zeal wears off and you try describing this to your co-workers, many of whom honestly don’t feel that overloaded most of the time. You can make a few personal behavioral changes and convince some others to do the same, but they have little impact and wear off soon. And then you catch yourself interrupting people because you actually need to and they “tsk tsk” you saying it was unnecessary to them. Then you find that of the 28% of your day that is supposedly wasted, really only a few percent of it can truly be recovered without treating every day like a nine hour sprint. Without any real solutions to survive the information deluge you come off like someone complaining about the weather. “Bring an umbrella” as the morning show weatherman says over and over ad nauseam.
Enjoy Information Overload Awareness Day if you’re new to the subject, but the next day think about real actions that can be taken. Think about a systemic solution, like Enterprise Attention Management which describes how to pull important information forward and push less important information back. EAM avoids the moralizing about what you’re doing to yourself and others and doesn’t require adherents to be converts. It shifts the focus to enterprise-wide efficiency rather than individual struggle.
Note: This is a cross-posting from the Collaboration and Content Strategies blog.
I recently posted a set of ideas for improving e-mail from the point of view of enterprise attention management. It listed 15 ideas that would help e-mail users (which is pretty much everybody these days) to allocate their attention more efficiently to their daily tasks, whether that means more attention to some e-mails or less.
One of the items I listed on was this:
Remind sender if no reply
Avoid “dropping the ball” with e-mails by adding a simple checkbox indicating if an e-mail being sent should alert the sender if no reply is received within a given time (like 3 days). Too often post mortems indicate that a message was never replied to, the sender forgot about it (“fire and forget”), and the task was therefore left in limbo.
I cannot overstate the importance of closing the loop on communications between senders and receivers. Especially when you combine important messages with “weak” connections (meaning they are unlikely to speak often and are unlikely to have other chances to reiterate the information and check up to see if a message was delivered). Getting medical test results fits this pattern to a tee. In fact, when I added this item as one of the 15 ideas, I did so knowing that it had a very personal connection to my life. Today’s WSJ described why (6/23/09, pD4, “Make Sure You Get Test Results”). I can’t find the exact article online, but here’s a summary from the USA Today:
No news isn’t necessarily good news for patients waiting for the results of medical tests. The first study of its kind finds doctors failed to inform patients of abnormal cancer screenings and other test results 1 out of 14 times.
The failure rate was higher at some doctors’ offices, as high as 26% at one office. Few medical practices had explicit methods for how to tell patients, leaving each doctor to come up with a system. In some offices, patients were told if they didn’t hear anything, they could assume their test results were normal.
… “If bad things happen to patients that could have been prevented, that will lead to higher costs and in some cases considerably higher costs,” Casalino said.
I can vouch for “considerably higher costs.” At the risk of being overly personal or melodramatic, the issue mentioned in the study was the primary likely contributor of the death of an immediate family member of mine last year. When the “fire and forget” mechanism I describe involves a communication from a lab to a physician, that message can be important indeed. In the case I mention, a message indicating a negative result and recommending more tests was sent, but the recipient claimed to have not gotten the message. By the time the proper tests were run a few years later, the condition had progressed from highly curable (85% chance of survival past 5 years) to terminal (15% chance).
The “confirmed delivery” features of e-mail programs may be of some assistance, although in my experience recipients often do not acknowledge receipt and I’m not sure how consistent implementation is between e-mail systems. Besides, what I’m recommending is the opposite – a “delivery wasn’t confirmed” response. In cases like those described in the cancer screening study, “fire and forget” messaging can have very serious consequences.
Google announced Wave at its conference on Thursday, resulting in some bubbly coverage by the IT press. Check out the video from Google’s conference where they announced Wave (although allow 1 hr 20 min).
I watched the announcement and sometimes during effusive vendor presentations I feel like the guy at magic shows trying to get past what the magician wants you to focus on to reveal how the tricks are done. That’s how I felt watching the video of the presentation where Google Wave was introduced.
For example, the story accompanying Google Wave includes some magician’s hand-waving about eliminating e-mail and reinventing communication (“e-mail was invented 40 years ago before the internet … instead of point-to-point like e-mail, there’s a server-hosted conversation that participants connect to …”) as he slips a collaborative workspace into your pocket. Boil this down and it’s a workspace instead of channel. Workspaces have been around 40 years too and also pre-date the internet as bulletin boards, usenet, etc.
The spell checker (an applause line brought up at least 3 times in the presentation) is contextual which is neat, but I don’t think the technology was created by Wave. While they didn’t mention its origins, I suspect it comes from the work done in Google Translate that implements statistical translation (one of two machine translation methods with the other being rule-based). By analyzing a truly enormous amount of text that is deemed to be accurately translated (one blog reported that Google used 200 billion words from United Nations documents as input), a learning system can develop inferences about how words are to be used and, given a new piece of text to translate, the highest probability of proper translation based upon past experience.
The presenter demos real-time editing with color highlighting and cursors for different editors. When the presenter asked if we could picture students taking notes in a class together, I thought “Yes, I can picture it very easily because I’ve seen SubEthaEdit.” Real-time collaboration editors have been around for a while. What’s cool is not that you can do that at all (“Imagine …”), but that it’s working in a browser and has an open API.
Beyond the re-purposing and re-skinning there are some advances:
- You can respond to parts of messages, which should be handy for those people that include several points in a message that you want to break apart. This also works in larger pieces of content so it acts as a larger content review process (comments are inline instead of in bullets to the side like Word)
- Google made the decision to have text entry be synchronous (you can check an async box to turn that off) so people can see what’s being typed as its typed.
- There’s a playback mechanism. Wikis inherently have logging, so it seems an obvious but fun next step to play through the changes.
The audience seemed happy. There were applause lines for dragging and dropping photos into a discussion, wiki-like changing of other people’s text and markup, drag and dropping a link to a collaboration space.
To me the upside is not the new invention (or re-invention) of capabilities. Think about Google Maps. The cool thing about Google Maps wasn’t that a programmer could overlay data on maps and scroll/zoom around it. That had existed for quite some time. What was cool is that the API made it so easy and embeddable that great applications (“Mapsups” as one client of mine called them) started showing up everywhere.
Well, Wave was created by the Google Maps team. If they can do the same thing with collaboration spaces and synchronous collab that they did with the Maps API we could see much better use of web-based collaboration. Too often collaboration tools have been modal rather than blending contextually into other apps. Hopefully Wave can make some inroads here. And that was, indeed, the point of the presentation which was to get developers excited about using the APIs to get the snowball rolling. It would have been useful to get past the presdigitation and instead of pretending this is all new or the “e-mail killer” to point more to the APIs as the real value.
Our company has been playing with Yammer lately. We’re using it like an internal Twitter for employees. Officially it would be known as persistent chat since conversations do not get initiated and then shut down like an instant messaging chat would, but rather they stay open and people continually talk throughout the day. It’s a virtual water cooler in the virtual office.
Here’s a scrubbed sample of how the conversations go:
Bill Malmsteen: nice job Alice et al on the call
12:11 PM – reply
Joe Lynch in reply to Bill Malmsteen: +1 12:15 PM – reply
James Emmett: On the con call w/Amy, Sue, Mary. Going well.
11:47 AM – reply
Bill Malmsteen in reply to Joe Lynch: question in Q for you: 11:48 AM – reply
Bill Malmsteen in reply to Bill Malmsteen: “What kind of assessments should customers be expecting from the providers? ” 11:48 AM – reply
Daniel Emmett: Most of them will offer a type 2 but you have to be careful …
As I review the daily digests of conversation I get emailed, I’m fascinated. And not as a technology analyst, but as a student of sociology (my minor in college a long time ago, now just a hobbyist). If one makes the assumption that the selection effect of those participating is minimal and that people are not acting differently in the chat than they would in real, public conversations, then what you have is a compiled record of a type of hallway chit-chat that occurs regularly in a business. Actually I wouldn’t make these assumptions – I would validate them in private interviews with employees to make sure the conversation accurately represents the public face they use with their co-workers. The tone of the conversation is somewhat moderated and averaged out by its public nature. This is good for study – participants inadvertently conform to a common view of the the corporate culture, which yields a gold mine for any sociologist (or corporate anthropologist) that wants to study the impacts of corporate culture and lacked a good way to quantify it.
The conversations are already in handy textual digest form, so all the researcher has to do is paste it into a spreadsheet or simple database and then get a bunch of grad students to tag each posting (a conversational text fragment) up. Sample tags could include:
- Constructive tear-down, unconstructive tear-down, agreement
- Non-work related (sub-category: sports, travel, restaurants, family)
- Level of poster (CxO, executive, manager/director, worker)
- Informative, asking for help
- Detailed, uses jargon, high level
Once you’ve accumulated a large set of these statistics for a few dozen companies, correlate for key success factors such as growth, profitability, or average length of employee tenure. You may now find statistically significant correlations between culture (as revealed by conversational tone and topics) and corporate success. Persistent chat provides an easily searchable and taggable artifact for something that would be difficult or impossible to observe otherwise – casual conversation between a broad swath of employees with zero observer effect (where the fact that people know they are being observed by the researcher distorts their behavior).
I’ve noted already how the culture of Burton Group is what I would call “nice” – people enjoy the opportunity to compliment others and build on ideas. Another company where I worked had a very different culture, where people wanted to be seen doing the best take-down of others possible and were granted status for being successful at it. I always felt that way, but now I could actually quantify this opinion if only I had a few grad students hanging around to tag up the transcripts for me …
The economic downturn is forcing IT organizations to cut funding to many projects. When these cuts impact communication, collaboration, and content technology IT shops need to put policies and monitoring in place to make sure that users do not make unauthorized use of consumer technology to do an end run around those constrained IT departments. Why not? Because this could happen:
This is a webcast from a very large, publicly traded software vendor and is their official slide deck on a new product. I’ve obscured the actual slide with the purple text since embarrassing the software vendor wasn’t my intention here. Instead of using any of a number of hosted webcasting platforms, they decided to use a free (but ad-driven) consumer one. The result is a serious presentation about their product with the corporate logo prominently displayed next to come-ons for “Bridget’s sexiest beaches” and “Christian mom makes $5k/M”. If that’s not enough you’ll love the ads that keep popping up at the bottom every few minutes blocking the last few lines of text (like the one here for movie tickets).
Communication, collaboration, and content technologies are especially vulnerable to this problem since they represent many under-implemented or hot technologies that were not funded before the recession hit. These same technologies often have free, consumer counterparts available on the web. So when a central IT organization turns away users who want technology that is unfunded or too bleeding edge, they need to think about where those users are likely to go for help next? Maybe to Bridget’s sexy beach?
Don’t Touch My Wallet: Convincing Management that Smart Companies in Recessions Increase Spending on [IT, training, advertising, etc.]February 26, 2009 at 4:26 pm | Posted in business case, collaboration, communication, Content Management, Recession | Leave a comment
The recession has proven to be a boon to writers of articles and blog postings you can email to your executives about how whatever domain they are experts in (like customer relations folks or training people) is critical to avoid cutting and maybe even increase spending on it like other smart companies do.
In researching how the recession is impacting my domain (information technology, and communication, collaboration, and content technology in particular) I was pleased to find articles saying that should really get more budget in tight times. Wonderful!
… But then I decided to check and see what other domains were saying about recessionary spending. After trolling dozens of sites on other domains like customer relationship management, training, marketing I noticed a familiar pattern – they all say they are smart places to spend too. Needless to say I did not find any articles from domain experts saying “In a recession, our department’s budget should be cut” or “Companies that come out of a recession stronger are those that cut spending in our department”. Instead every department has become the business equivalent of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon. At Wobegon Corporation every department provides greater than average returns on investments in recessionary times. Everyone can’t be right, so who is right that spending in their domain should increase during recessions (please let it be portals!) ?
The “Don’t Touch My Wallet” (DTMW) script
There are arguments and articles that rise above the fray – I’ll get to them at the end. But the bulk of them fall into a script I’ll call the “Don’t Touch My Wallet” (DTMW) script. There are a standard set of key elements you’ll find in a DTMW article.
The “Don’t touch my wallet” (DTMW) statement
- “Now is not the time to slash advertising budgets.“, “This is not the time to cut advertising”
- “Maintain marketing spending”
- “Now is the perfect time to increase your innovation efforts”
- “In a downturn it can actually make more sense to spend more money on training, not less”
- “Customer relationship management (CRM) technology is one of those critical areas that companies need to continue continually embrace, especially during tough economic times”
- “ Of course, now is the time to be frugal, but be frugal in areas that don’t touch the customer.” (this last one, from a CRM firm, is my favorite because it not only makes the “don’t touch my wallet” statement, but grants permission for the cost cutters to raid someone else’s!)
- “ Shoot the moon”
- “If the distance runner is really strong, when the runner hits a hill, the runner is gonna speed up”
- And the winner, for mixing metaphors about belts, frogs, and catapults in the same paragraph: “While others are tightening their belts, truly successful companies use the recession as a chance to leapfrog their competition. My favorite company … increases their investments during difficult times. They know that if they focus on innovation while others are cutting costs, they will quickly catapult past everyone else. “
The motivational pablum
- “ The first competitors to take action will be the ones who reap the greatest rewards.”
- “Have you ever noticed that many of the big winners in business were willing to make bets that ran counter to the prevailing wisdom of the time? There are countless success stories of leaders who ‘zigged’ when everyone else ‘zagged.’”
- “Smart companies know you can’t save your way out of a recession. “
The articles often quote a survey that shows organizations who spent more on their domain in a recession did better than their peers. They generally don’t reveal enough about their methodology to truly evaluate their findings, but these surveys feel fixed for 3 reasons:
- They are almost exclusively sponsored by organizations with a vested interest in the domain and would be unlikely to publish the results if they showed cutting costs to be a more effective strategy.
- The mere fact the surveyed organizations were in a position to increase spending in a recession indicates companies with comparatively better financials (compared to their peer group). Of course companies that go into a recession financially stronger are more likely to come out of it stronger.
- Just surveying those companies that increased spending in one domain is a self-selecting sample. Companies that increased spending on a particular domain already determined it is important for their type of business. For example, companies that doubled advertising expenditures in a recession are probably those that know they are in industries where advertising gets high leverage (like image-related consumer goods), while those in unimpressionable markets (like mining) would probably not bother to increase the minimal ad spending they have. So blanket statements that say “companies that increase ad spending in recessions do better” are not as universally applicable as they imply.
A good study should be sponsored by an institution that doesn’t have a stake in the results and examines both sides of the coin: winners and losers, companies who started in good or bad financial condition, companies that increased or decreased spending in the domain.
Principles about spending in a recession
Reading all these DTMW articles did help me uncover some underlying principles about spending in a recession. These are scary times. I don’t begrudge anyone trying to make the case for their domain (and, by proxy, their job). Quite the contrary, it’s everyone’s responsibility in tough times to think about the value their role brings. Where small investments can provide leverage in these conditions, you should make the case for them, throwing them into the marketplace of ideas with the understanding that everyone else is doing the same. With every experts in every domain publishing a DTMW script, running to your executive with a request for more money attached to an article backing up increased spending is likely to be laughed at when every department is making the same argument.
If you have money to spend in a recession that your competitors don’t, you’ll get more leverage anywhere you spend it wisely: IT, training, customer service, etc. Industries have different leverage points (elasticity) where a dollar of recession spending added or removed has a multiplicative effect on profitability. Don’t accept blanket statements across all industries about where that elasticity exists (e.g., “All companies should increase sales travel rather than cutting it when times get tough”). The key is to understand the dynamics of your industry and firm and select the correct points of leverage.
Recessions can shake organizations up for the better – they force organizations to cut waste, improve efficiency, be more aware of what they are doing and why. That last point (what you’re doing and why) brings me to portfolio management. In a recession, as at all times, portfolio management theory applies. This theory says organizations should allocate spending to categories – usually these three: running, growing, and transforming the business. Then all initiatives should be categorized accordingly and evaluated against each other.
So first, keep the lights on. Assuming you have some money left after that, understand there is a portfolio of incremental improvement projects and transformational projects that should be evaluated as a whole. The DTMW articles make the mistake of bypassing reasonable portfolio management discipline to make the argument that one should just jump to spending more on their pet domain without analyzing its relation to other projects in the portfolio. Spending more on domain A may indeed have a high return. But if spending on domains B, C, and D have an even higher return, spending on A wouldn’t be a wise move without money to cover all four domains.
So how do you do this right? After hours of reading DTMW articles, it was a joy to finally find one that stated the case for its domain (web design) properly, succinctly, and with a professional level of humility. This may not grab the attention of the CFO, but it will withstand reasonable scrutiny once investigated further:
So my conclusion is that, despite what DTMW articles say, smart companies are not the ones that blindly increase spending in one domain just because other companies do (it’s a self-selecting sample) or because a logical argument can be made for the importance of spending in that domain (all domains have differing elasticity based on industry and individual factors). Recessions give smart companies an opportunity to gain an edge by selectively outspending their competition in key domains. They select the domains by digging harder into the data and applying portfolio management discipline.
Back to my domain of IT, I posted previously about a Diamond Management and Technology Consultants study. While it is from a company with a stake in IT spending, I like the fact that they looked at companies that underperformed as well as outperformed. And their high-level advice fits the “be selective” mantra:
The central lesson of our research is that at the very time when a leader is tempted to shorten his or her time horizon and make simple across-the-board cuts, superior performers dig into the data and act more intelligently than the competition.