What to Do The Day After Information Overload Awareness Day

August 13, 2009 at 8:45 am | Posted in Attention Management, Culture, etiquette, Information Work, interruption science | 2 Comments

So, you’ve survived Information Overload Awareness Day.  Your eyes were opened to the stress, poor decision making, and cold hard cash being sacrificed on the altar of our always-on, always-connected, go-go-go culture.  Now what do you do?

Well, first I’d recommend coming down off the mountain a little bit and taking a view of the issue from the ground.  Consider that the proliferation of information and communication channels should not be seen entirely in the negative (the “overload” problem).  The implication is that if you don’t feel the problem, someone must not have shaken you hard enough with studies on stress, the difficulty of finding things, or put a big enough number on the cost. 

Some exaggeration (or, to be more accurate, exclusive focusing on the negative) may be useful to shake people awake and scare them straight.  But there’s a risk they will become hysterical or stare into space.  After all, once one can see the information apocalypse is neigh, one has to figure out what to do about it. Those who do little gain only a sense of futility; they can see what is happening but do nothing about it.  While those who do too much risk vast unintended consequences.  Social bonds and efficiency suffer when people behave selfishly to shield themselves from interruptions that are unnecessary (to them).  Short lived attempts to change etiquette result in long-term feelings of bullying and reduce the effectiveness of future attempts.  Once-a-week time-outs (of e-mail, meetings) just shift the burden to other days while avoiding a root cause of the inefficiency: messages maintaining their channel without being pulled forward or pushed back as needed.  

I believe that an organization-wide, systemic, balanced approach that aims to improve efficiency for all workers is preferable to defining the situation in negative terms which start a war in response that can have vast unintended consequences. You can do take a balanced view by starting to think about:

  • A model (enterprise attention management) to organize, elicit (as an intuition pump), and communicate potential improvements that can increase the efficiency of a large number of workers (a systemic fix) rather than just personal tips on how any one person interested can help themselves
  • Who are the couple of people in your organization that can have a positive impact on the attention management abilities of everyone in the company?  What can executives and owners of communication systems do that is more than what any one individual worker can do?  
  • “Closed loop” rather than selfish view of interruptions.  Consider each interruption as an interaction between the interrupter and those interrupted and determining, as a whole, if it was useful to the organization. So what is a real interruption in your business?  What is “interrupted” versus “distracted” and what is an “unnecessary” interruption (does the person doing the interruption ever think their interruption is unnecessary and if not, who gets to judge)?
  • How social contracts and organizational structure influence interruptions and information flows in ways that aren’t captured in overload calculations and may result in unintended consequences if disrupted
  • How technology can help.  Technology is not the answer, but it’s certainly a lot of the problem and, accordingly, can be a participant in an improvement approach.  With a model in place, attentional capabilities of tools can be enumerated and used to their fullest extent to address known problems
  • Teachable moments.  Much of the information overload is due to etiquette and culture, but browbeating people to change their ways has little effect.  It’s been said that you can’t force changes in culture, but yet there are certainly cases where culture has been drastically changed.  Part of the answer lies in exploiting teachable moments to make positive changes in counterproductive communication and information management behaviors
  • Pacing.  Try to get a realistic idea of how much improvement you can actually target.  Even if 28% of workers’ days are wasted, 0% isn’t the proper target.  Step back and think about what the real target should be to get a realistic picture of potential cost savings. By all means, use the Basex number as an example of one extreme way of estimating it, but follow up by talking about the importance of determining a realistic goal for improvement.  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. Don’t use a sum of personal observations (rather than closed-loop), depend on colloquial and self-determined definitions, or build overall angst into your number

So, it’s a good thing if IOAD created an awareness that wasn’t there.  But the real value comes now – the day after – when organizations struggle with how to approach something described as such an enormous problem with tendrils in sociology, psychology, physiology, technology, and business.  My recommendation is to leave the negative framing (“overload”, “problem”) and self-helpy, guru-talk aside.  Now is the time to recast the issue in terms of systemic efficiency that can be analyzed with a conceptual model and target improvements that are both reasonable and achievable.

Note: This is a cross-posting from the Collaboration and Content Strategies blog.


2009 Prediction: There Will Be Pronouncement That Unnecessary Interruptions and Information Overload Tops $1 Trillion ($1,000,000,000,000)

February 17, 2009 at 5:05 pm | Posted in Attention Management, etiquette, Information Work, interruption science, knowledge management | 10 Comments

Commentators and average folk alike were aghast as the amount of the financial bailout crept towards the $1 trillion mark.  But as Congress backed away into sub-$800bn territory (for now), another cost is likely to be announced that beats them to this lofty mark: the cost of information overload.

These Basex figures get quoted a lot in the press and, while I do believe that many people and organizations do suffer from information overload, I’m not buying into attempts to quantify it and certainly not at a price tag of $1,000,000,000,000.  In fact, I think there’s long term harm from trying to get people to act by shocking them with inflated numbers.  Just look at knowledge management.  KM was a real issue and worthy cause too, before it was done in by money-losing attempts to recover the huge dollar estimates of its inefficiencies.

How do I know this pronouncement is coming?  I’ve been following their stats on “unnecessary interruptions” for some time.  They went from $588 billion in 2005 (for interruptions without the “unnecessary” tag) to $650 billion in 2007 (you’d think the number would decrease when just the unnecessary ones are counted, but it jumped up instead).  In December, they posted a blog entry saying

According to our latest research Information Overload costs the U.S. economy a minimum of $900 billion per year in lowered employee productivity and reduced innovation.  Despite its heft, this is a fairly conservative number and reflects the loss of 25% of the knowledge worker’s day to the problem.  The total could be as high as $1 trillion.

I’ll have to examine that new research more.  How do the interruption and information overload numbers intersect?  Are they separate (totalling $1.6 trillion?) or are interruptions part of information overload (which makes sense, but then why is the umbrella number smaller than the 28% of worker’s day previously quoted for interruptions?).

If the $1 trillion figure is anything like the $650bn number I’m not going to buy it.  I haven’t seen a full disclosure on their methodology for workplace interruptions, but from what I could glean there were potentially several techniques used to generate a large number:

1. Lumping in social interactions and distractions with interruptions

Just lump all time wasting annoyances, distractions, and socializing in with the more scientific-sounding “interruptions” and you’ll get a pretty big number. Or better yet, don’t define interruption in any strict sense and survey takers will do the lumping for you. You’ll be able to lump 28% of the average information worker’s day into this category.

2. By counting all costs and no benefits (quote “total cost” instead of “net cost”)

How do you lose $10,000 at blackjack while walking out with the same $100 you went in with?  Simple, just tally up all the losing hands and ignore the winning hands.  Play 200 hands at $100 per hand, win half and lose half, and you’ll come out even.  But that means you lost $10,000 (the total of the 100 losing hands)!

If you don’t like the blackjack analogy, then plug in your own one-side-of-the-coin analogy.  How about totaling up just the expenses on a large company’s income statement without subtracting it from revenue and being shocked at how big the number is and the potential that even a small amount of improvement in that number could make?

One non-Basex study I saw asked how many interruptions people had, then assumed 50% of them were unnecessary based on other research.  Fine, but then interruptions as a whole average out, don’t they?  You can still optimize – a company that’s at break-even can always reduce costs, but the size of the total cost pool is not the issue then.  It counted all the losing hands (calling them “unnecessary”) and ignored the winners.  The implication is that you can keep all the necessary ones and chip away at the unnecessary ones, but who is involved in judging an interruption as “‘unnecessary?”

3. By ignoring closed-loop analysis

Here’s a surefire way to double the $10,000 in losses I quoted in #2.  Just interview everyone at the table (you and the dealer) and add up all their losses.  Since the half I lost was $10,000 and the half the dealer lost was $10,000, that’s $20,000 in total losses at that table.  But we both came away even!

Basex went to some effort to quantify “unnecessary” as not urgent, not important, could have been done another way, etc.  But if you ask individuals this instead of both sides of each transaction, you’re just interviewing the dealer and the player about their blackjack losses and forgetting that quite often one wins when the other loses.  Almost every possible model I can think of for interruptions (see interruption patterns) results in one of the parties involved losing on the deal, so pretty much every interruption will be counted as unnecessary by someone and without closed-loop analysis almost every interruption will get incorrectly totaled.

You need to do closed loop analysis – treating each interruption as an interaction between the interrupter and those interrupted and determining, as a whole, if it was useful to the organization.  Most interruptions are useful to someone, or why would they do it (I propose only a small proportion are careless etiquette transgressions)?  If it’s a matter of self-important timing on the part of the interrupter, consider if there is ever really a “good” time you could push these interruptions to.

4. By playing loose with the definition of “unnecessary”

Reversing a question can help validate it.  In this case, ask the question from the other side to see if you get the same answer.  Ask each survey taker how many times they interrupted someone else that day and how many of those were unnecessary.  If the interrupter thinks it was necessary, shouldn’t a conservative estimate give them the benefit of the doubt?  I predict the difference in results between the question that yields $900bn and this one would be enormous.  Only a small portion would be because the interrupter forgets they interrupted someone – the rest is the inaccuracy of the methodology.

In common parlance, any unnecessary activity interrupts a necessary one you’re working on.  Have to stop working on your coding to go to a stupid meeting?  That meeting interrupted your coding.  That’s 1 hour of interruption plus 15 minutes to get back to what I was doing.  If I decide to take a break and look at email, and then get sidetracked by a dumb one?  The email “interrupted” me unnecessarily.  If you want to let survey takers count all unnecessary activities as “unnecessary interruptions” that’s fine, but throwing interruption technology and etiquette solutions against the general problem of business inefficiency is like throwing a pebble at a wall to knock it down.  The survey definitions and the solutions have to use the same definition of “unnecessary”.

5. By comparing against perfect short-term productivity instead of long-term sustainable productivity

Yes, people take breaks and, being social creatures, they often interrupt others to do it with them.  People need breaks.  Even the best runners have to pace themselves for a marathon.  I calculated that optimal performance for the best marathon runner is obtained by running at only about half speed.  What if you spend a bunch of time and effort getting people to eliminate certain time-wasting habits, and they just re-fill that time with other habits because they need or want that time?  It may be worth figuring that out before throwing a lot of time and money away.

So you’ve figured out by now that I don’t buy the $900 billion number and I certainly won’t when it hits a trillion.  Maybe the surprising part if you don’t regularly read my blog is that I’m very much a believer that attention management is a very useful approach and that organizations and individuals can take real steps to manage their attention better (for enterprises see my Enterprise Attention Management conceptual architecture; for individuals my Personal Attention Management tips).  But I also believe in having an accurate picture of costs and benefits.

Another techno-cultural topic I believe in is knowledge management.  KM’s basis tenets were sound- that knowledge (or at least “information” if you don’t want to sound too pompous about it) is an asset just like a factory or an employee and needs to be managed as such.  But KM became a dirty word after a few years of consultants exaggerating the size of the problem and what could be done about it.  It’s taken about a decade for KM to get back on its feet, and only now under new names so as not to arouse those burnt on KM before.  I don’t want this to happen to attention management and information overload too.  It’s a real problem, but a complex one that is impossible to pin a real number on.  And it has real solutions too that can help when recognized problems exist – if you don’t promise too much.

Note: This version has been updated due to a helpful comment from Mark Worth pointing out the shift from quoting “unnecessary interruptions” to “information overload”.

Who Wants Queries In Emai’ls "To:" Field? Don’t Include Me in That Query Result.

January 23, 2009 at 2:41 pm | Posted in email, etiquette, social software | 2 Comments

MIT’s Technology Review reported today on a prototype e-mail system that “allows users to direct a message to people who fulfill certain criteria without necessarily knowing recipients’ e-mail addresses, or even their names.”  To paraphrase the idea, the “to” field is being treated as a query (e.g., all people at company X in role Y) and can allow for fuzzy logic (e.g., all people interested in X). 

The article mentions one scenario I deem useful (addressing to a person’s most recent email address by just entering their name), and acknowledges the obvious room for abuse and spam.  I can’t even fathom how much spam would result if spammers or semi-spammers like recruiters or real-estate brokers could send emails to “everyone with income > $100,000” or “everyone who graduated from Harvard” or “everyone who owns a single family home”.

But I think the real issue here that wasn’t addressed in the article is that this system is entirely skipping over the entire burgeoning field of social networking.  Yes, people want to be able to find everyone in product marketing at a certain company or everyone from their high school graduating class, but we have social networking systems to do that.  For consumer use there is LinkedIn, Facebook, MySpace, and Xing.  For enterprise use there is IBM Lotus Connections, MySites in Microsoft SharePoint, and the social search capabilities that were in BEA Pathways were merged into Oracle’s secure enterprise search.

But people want to maintain their social networks and decide which communities to join.  If I want to associate myself with a group that I could join, such as “University of Chicago MBAs”, that’s my decision.  I don’t want it made for me by a query engine.  And if that community wishes to keep its list private, as the “Ex-META Group Analysts” group does, that’s our business too.  There’s a rich set of social connection and community functionality – creating, joining, inviting, disbanding, leaving, mining, referring, federating – that people want to do with social networks.  The richer functionality described by this addressing system seems to ditch all of that in favor of a query that determines your inclusion or exclusion based on a database without injecting the human effort that goes into nourishing and pruning one’s group and community memberships.

As Mike Gotta pointed out in his posting on Facebook And Power.com: It’s About Honoring Mutual Relationship Rights, connections between people depend on trust and, accordingly, permission rights. 

I’m reading a lot into this system and what is probably some great academic work from a summary article.  It could be very interesting on academic merits.  But as a tool for culling social connections built into email, I think it doesn’t fit real-world needs and expectations.  The fact that a set of queries can determine you are a member of a group doesn’t mean its results will be useful (as an indicator of true commitment to a group) or welcomed.

Emily Post on Blog Postings

January 21, 2009 at 10:04 am | Posted in Blogs, etiquette, Fun | 1 Comment

I hope you have been enjoying my blog postings, but I believe there is always room for improvement.  Therefore, in a constant quest to improve the quality of my communications, I have turned to the doyenne of etiquette, Emily Post.  The original 1922 text of her book “ETIQUETTE IN SOCIETY, IN BUSINESS, IN POLITICS AND AT HOME” is available on Gutenberg.net.  A simple find&replace of “letter” with “blog posting” resulted in some sage advice that I intend to follow from now on.


In writing notes or blog postings, as in all other forms of social observance, the highest achievement is in giving the appearance of simplicity, naturalness and force.

Those who use long periods of flowered prolixity and pretentious phrases—who write in complicated form with meaningless flourishes, do not make an impression of elegance and erudition upon their readers, but flaunt instead unmistakable evidence of vainglory and ignorance.

The blog posting you write, whether you realize it or not, is always a mirror which reflects your appearance, taste and character. A “sloppy” blog posting with the writing all pouring into one corner of the page, badly worded, badly spelled, and with unmatched CSS themes—even possibly a blot—proclaims the sort of person who would have unkempt hair, unclean linen and broken shoe laces; just as a neat, precise, evenly written note portrays a person of like characteristics. Therefore, while it can not be said with literal accuracy that one may read the future of a person by study of his writing, it is true that if a young man wishes to choose a wife in whose daily life he is sure always to find the unfinished task, the untidy mind and the syncopated housekeeping, he may do it quite simply by selecting her from her blog postings.

From “ETIQUETTE IN SOCIETY, IN BUSINESS, IN POLITICS AND AT HOME” by Emily Post (1922), with just a few minor modifications

Ah … as true today as it was then.  I will be brief now and close out this entry, so you don’t think of me as the type of blogger who has broken shoe laces.  Guess I should be checking my wife’s blog more often though …

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