Unnecessary Interruptions are Bad, But $650 Billion? I Doubt It.

January 28, 2008 at 3:21 pm | Posted in Attention Management | 5 Comments

I’ve seen many articles (such as this one in the New York Times Blog) quoting a Basex study lately:

It says the $650 billion figure is an estimate of the “cost of unnecessary interruptions” in terms of lost productivity and innovation.

I’m all for getting people to stop and introspect for a moment about how connectedness, interruptions, and information overload are effecting their lives and, if they are in a position to effect others, the effect they have on others.  I’m all for getting enterprises to actually recognize the issue and do something about it, such as seeking and enabling technologies and capabilities that can make information workers more effective by pulling important messages forward and pushing less important ones back. 

But this problem space has an “eye-rolling” problem and numbers that large just make it worse.  $650 billion?  By comparison the total budget for Medicare in 2007 was $367 billion.  GE’s total revenues for 2006 were $163 billion.  In November of 2007 there were 146.7 million people employed in the US, so $650 billion would equate to $4,430 for every worker in the country.  The 2007 Economist Pocket World in Figures lists the GDP of the United States as $11.7 trillion, so we’re talking about a 5.6% bump in GDP if everyone would stop annoying everyone else with interruptions.  Not too shabby considering $650 billion is larger than the total GDP of Sweden and Austria combined.  In fact, all of Australia (13th biggest economy in the world) could go on holiday for a year and world GDP would still be higher if the rest of the workers would just buckle down.  Hmmm.

I doubt it.  Is this figure more about goofing off and blowing off steam than interruptions?  Attention management should not become a proxy for all consensual socialization and breaktime that workers want to take.  That is an entirely separate, even more intractable issue. I’m sure the world GDP would go way up if everyone fired on all cylinders all day every day.  World GDP would also go up if there was no corruption, no disease, and peace on Earth. 

There are things that enterprises can do to use enterprise attention management principles to improve the effectiveness of information workers, but first the potential champions in an organization must be convinced this is a real issue that can actually be addressed.  Exaggerating its effects gets attention in the media,  but can discourage those in the executive suite that may be able to help.  And once you get executives to buy into a strategy based upon dollar savings rather than quality and speed of decision making and employee retention, you’ll be expected to prove how much you’ve saved in hard dollars later.



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  1. I’ve been studying the impact of information overload on my organization (we have over 40,000 knowledge workers spread out over three continents and have read multiple studies (including several reports published by Basex) on the topic.

    The data we found coincides with some of Basex’s findings (we’re both very close to 2.1 hours per day of loss for the unnecessary interruptions plus recovery time). Given that there are about 56 million knowledge workers, I don’t think Basex’s figures are that far off.

    For our ca. 40,000 knowlege workers, the loss of 2.1 hours per day is a $4000 per worker cost per year for us.

    I wonder, have you read the actual research as opposed to the newspaper articles) before you criticize it? The fact that the numbers are large doesn’t indicate they are wrong.

    By the way, and English is not my first language (German is), there is an important distinction in English between “effect” and “affect.”

    You wrote:
    “I’m all for getting people to stop and introspect for a moment about how connectedness, interruptions, and information overload are effecting their lives and, if they are in a position to effect others, the effect they have on others. ”

    In each case, “effect” or “effecting” is “affect” etc.

  2. I’m hoping my research was included in your reading! You can get a free look at my conceptual architecture model on this blog and access a podcast where I talk through it for free.

    I’d be very interested to talk further about the study you did internally as part of my continuing research on enterprise attention management. Would you be amenable to a conversation or an email exchange? To get a preview of my thoughts on why an interruption study is so much more difficult than a log where people record how many hours interruptions cost them each day, you can see my entry https://knowledgeforward.wordpress.com/2007/03/08/some-clarifications-to-posting-on-interruptions/. Also see the blog entry it refers to called ”
    I Have No Time for Interruption Bashing”

    In that blog entry I gave the benefit of the doubt that the study was probably done well and I just didn’t have all the information. But since then I’ve begun to doubt that. I’m now thinking that I do not believe that any statistically significant study can estimate the number of unnecessary interruptions with better than +-50% accuracy. I’m open to any evidence that a methodology has been developed and implemented that includes closed-system analysis of interruption value, but I haven’t seen it yet from the authors of this study despite my examination of their website, a paper I downloaded from them, executive summaries, and quotes from the authors in articles. I wrote their president specifically to ask about the methodology and the question was ignored and he sent me pointers to two documents for sale that use the stats as a driver, but do not seem to be study results documents that would detail methodology and statistical detail. The value judgment “unnecessary” makes an enormous difference in the results, but just started appearing when the study’s number was upped to $650bn (without another study being undertaken). It seems unlikely that such a complicating factor as closed-loop evaluation of the value of interruptions would be introduced to the study with so little explanation or fanfare. If I’m proven wrong, I’ll happily post a correction in this blog.

    Also, just to clarify, I actually think the study is valuable and even much of the attention its results have brought to the issue of information overload are valuable. And we appear to agree on the nature of the problem and many of the solutions. My criticism is of the methodology and the “eye rolling” effect that the resulting number has.

  3. Hi Craig,

    I don’t know if the $650 billion is correctly derived, however I believe that the costs of information overload are even higher than that. Check out http://www.managingio.com/2008/02/17/the-real-cost-of-information-overload/

    Comments are welcome!


  4. Your post has a good point when it talks about “the indirect costs of information overload, i.e. the missed opportunities due to the ‘solutions’ that we are forced to apply when dealing with IO.”

    What you are describing is “opportunity cost” – the cost of forgoing one option when you pick another. Information overload can lead to bad decision making, hence picking less effective choices while overlooking more effective ones. I have no doubt that if you included opportunity costs, an even higher number for the cost of information overload would result. Of course, at that point you start getting further away from what you can measure to compare to a utopian ideal. And duplication with other issues such as knowledge management begins to emerge.

    So, in summary, I agree entirely that one has to think about the cost of bad decision making when arguing for giving more attention to information overlaod. But I wouldn’t pump up the $650bn figure. I would deflate that figure to make it more defensible in a boardroom and supplement it with good qualitative arguments about the other issues such as opportunity costs that should also inform a decision to address attention management.

  5. Solving the $650bn problem requires a new, high-level workplace tool – a Human Interaction Management System (HIMS), that understands human collaboration and leverages email et al to support it.

    A HIMS lets you negotiate next steps with colleagues in your own and other organizations, using a clear visual representation of everyone’s responsibilities and commitments, then helps you execute your own part in these “Stories”.

    The reference implementation of a HIMS is the free desktop program HumanEdj. If you want a glimpse of the future, check out the walkthrough at http://www.humanedj.com/faq#Tutorials.

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