Category Archives: Research

From soldiers to knowledge workers: Overloaded 2012 covers spectrum of challenges

Attendees at Overloaded 2012 in San FranciscoThe recent daylong get-together of information overload experts and solution-seekers in San Francisco yielded a rich harvest of insights. (The Feb. 25 conference was sponsored by the Information Overload Research Group. For a summary of the morning keynote by Dr. David Levy, see previous post.)

The military on overload—Col. Pete Marksteiner, an Air Force public affairs officer, is trying to focus more of the military’s attention on information overload. Military doctrine says the ability of the U.S. to achieve its objectives depends on its effectiveness in employing “the instruments of national power”—diplomatic, informational, military, and economic. Marksteiner said battles can be lost due to distractions, interruptions, and urgency over effectiveness. “If these things adversely influence the way people receive, process, interpret and use data, they’re a threat to national security,” he said. The 9/11 Commission concluded the U.S. has poor systems for processing information. Marksteiner is recommending to the Air Force Science Advisory Board that the military look at the problem carefully and leverage expertise available to help solve it.

Five seconds to decide—Christina Randle, CEO of The Effective Edge, said professionals must handle 225 inputs per day (deciding what to do with them in 5 seconds or less). Her company provides tools and techniques that have reduced stress, improved work/life balance, decreased interruptions, and improved deadline performance. However, she said, challenges are looming: “We’ve mastered the tools for individual effectiveness. Now we have to work in teams. We’re moving from email to collaboration. And IT is not focused on learning.”

The new inbox—Pierre Khawan, CEO of People on the Go, describes email, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn as “the new inbox.” His research shows that only 20 percent of people have a workable strategy for handling all the incoming messages. Khawan has developed a framework in which people switch from the “accomplishment zone” (where individual tasks get done) to the “collaboration zone” (for email, networking, etc.). He’s posted a variety of free and low-cost information at People on the Go.

Jonathan Spira, CEO of BasexAwareness begets reduction—Jonathan Spira, CEO of Basex and author of Overload!, said one underlying problem is that “we don’t have a management science for the knowledge era. We’re using the approaches from the industrial age. Gatherings like this will help forge the management science.” Spira said the amount of time knowledge workers can spend on thought and reflection—the highest value they can add—is now down to 5% of their day. What’s driving information overload is “an exaggerated sense of what’s urgent and important.”

Bad habits continue to prevail: 62 percent of knowledge workers at one energy company open emails within 10 minutes, and 32 percent expected a response within an hour. “Reasonable service level expectations would help.” A key new finding: “Simply telling people there’s a problem reduced information overload by 10 percent. You’re helping to reduce it by writing about it.”

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Overloaded 2012: New energy around solving the overload problem

Overloaded  audience 2Would you give up a Saturday to help reduce information overload? On February 25, nearly 30 people—from academia, industry, consulting and the military—did just that.

They gathered at the PariSoma Innovation Loft in San Francisco for a day of presentations, discussions and brainstorming organized by the Information Overload Research Group. (I’m a founding director.)

Dr. David Levy, professor at the University of Washington’s Information School, said information overload represents “a constellation of current cultural concerns” that include busyness, fragmentation of attention (as in multitasking) and acceleration (where results are expected sooner).

He compared the overload challenge to the environmental movement, which “started with the awareness that something is out of balance with our relationship to the natural world.” He said many aspects of environmentalism—including research, education, policy setting, technology development and changes in social practices—also apply to information overload.

Contemplative multitasking—Dr. Levy and two associates conducted an experiment with 50 HR people in Seattle and San Francisco. They divided them into three groups (a control group, a group that received training in meditation, and a group that was taught body relaxation). Before and after the training, they had “lifelike multitasking experiences”—trying to write a memo while experiencing a multitude of interruptions. The meditators reported being less stressed after the training, and they also spent more “connected time” on single tasks. “They actually strengthened their ability not to pay attention to something and to stay with something,” said Levy. “It shows the mind can be trained to ignore input and be less taken away by distractions.”

Overloaded  David LevyUndergraduate overload—“We’ve been assuming the ‘born digital’ generation has it handled,” said Levy (at right in photo), but research is finding that’s not so. Levy described an experiment at Georgetown University and the University of Washington in which students abstained from a technological practice for up to three days (i.e., turn off your smart phone, stay off Facebook, etc.). Typical comments: “I felt like I was more engaged in the world,” “You can’t compare texting to being with someone,” and “We grew up in a culture that was very multitasking-oriented—where time out is a punishment. Students should learn when they’re young how to calm down and be focused.”

“I think they’re actually looking for help,” Levy said. “It’s a real opportunity for cross-generational dialogue—and it isn’t happening. There are real opportunities for the older and younger generation to learn from each other.”

Mindful awareness—In classrooms and workshops, Levy is attempting to help people be more deliberately conscious of their information practices. They discover, for instance, that the impulse to check email is often tied to boredom or anxiety—then construct personal guidelines that they share with the group.
“The challenge we face is not just unplugging in order to recover our sense of balance and well being, but it’s understanding how we can be online and be balanced,” Levy said. “This requires understanding of self as well as technology design.”

Coming next:  More insights from the Overloaded 2012 conference.

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We’re #1!

The Financial Post has made it official . . . in a column by Vancouver-based success and productivity coach Ray Williams: “The volume of emails and reliance on them for communication in organizations is becoming more acute and dysfunctional, and information overload is now the No. 1 problem in organizations.”

New York research firm Basex has been tracking the cost of that problem for years. The current total: $997 billion a year (and that’s just in the U.S.).

Meanwhile, at Harvard Business Review, contributing editor Amy Gallo suggests a method for dealing with email that’s too seldom discussed—individual responsibility! She makes the case that radical restrictions on email (being implemented by Atos and Volkswagen) aren’t really necessary.

What’s best about her article (“Stop Email Overload“) is this: It’s not “8 Simple Rules for Solving Your Email Problems,” but a thoughtful approach to attacking root causes. It also links to other helpful HBR articles on managing email, emptying your inbox, and deciding when to email—and when to talk face-to-face or by phone.

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Overload! New book spells out the hazards of infoglut

We’ve learned from Nicholas Carr how the Internet is driving our thinking into “The Shallows.” Clay Shirky shared the blessings of our “Cognitive Surplus”—the resources that are voluntarily poured into making the world a better place through technology. James Gleick’s “The Information” chronicled how we’ve dealt with information through the ages.

Now Jonathan Spira (Wikipedia| IORG bio) comes forth with a book that goes easy on the social commentary and builds a compelling case with original research and well-chosen anecdotes about what information overload is doing to knowledge workers in the U.S. It’s called Overload! How Too Much Information is Hazardous to your Organization.

Spira, CEO and chief analyst at the New York research firm Basex, gets our attention with a boatload of factoids:

  • There are 78.6 million knowledge workers in the United States alone.
  • Information Overload cost the U.S. economy almost $1 trillion in 2010.
  • A minimum of 28 billion hours is lost each year to Information Overload in the United States.
  • Reading and processing just 100 e-mail messages can occupy over half of a knowledge worker’s day.
  • It takes five minutes to get back on track after a 30-second interruption.
  • For every 100 people who are unnecessarily copied on an e-mail, eight hours are lost.
  • 58 percent of government workers spend half the workday filing, deleting, or sorting information, at a cost of almost $31 billion dollars.
  • 66 percent of knowledge workers feel they don’t have enough time to get all of their work done.
  • 94 percent of those surveyed at some point have felt overwhelmed by information to the point of incapacitation.
  • One major Fortune 500 company estimates that Information Overload impacts its bottom line to the tune of $1 billion per year.
  • Information Overload has caused people to lose their ability to manage thoughts and ideas, contemplate, and even reason and think.

Spira also presents 10 tips to help lower information overload, distilled from his 25 years as a technology thought leader:

E-mail

  • I will not e-mail someone and then two seconds later follow up with an IM or phone call.
  • I will refrain from combining multiple themes and requests in a single e-mail.
  • I will make sure that the subject of my e-mail clearly reflects both the topic and urgency of the missive.
  • I will read my own e-mail before sending to make sure it is comprehensible to others.
  • I will not overburden colleagues with unnecessary e-mail, especialliy one-word replies such as “Thanks!” or “Great!” and will use “reply to all” only when absolutely necessary.

Instant messaging and presence awareness

  • I will not get impatient when there’s no immediate response to my message.
  • I will keep my presence awareness state up-to-date and visible to others so they know whether I’m busy or away.

All forms of communication

  • I will recognize that the intended recipient of my communications is not a mind reader, and therefore I will supply the necessary details in my messages so nothing is left to the imagination.
  • I will recognize that typed words can be misleading in terms of both tone and intent, and I will strive for clarity and simplicity in my messages. (The use of an occasional, well-placed emoticon can do wonders here.)
  • Finally, because i understand the complexity and severity of the problem of Information overload, I will do whatever I can to facilitate the transfer and sharing of knowledge.

Spira devotes a chapter to “The Tech Industry and Information Overload,” and presents a behind-the-scenes look at the founding of the Information Overload Research Group (iorgforum.org). He offers probably the only accurate story out there of how IORG came to be. Despite the PR props that several large companies have received for “banding together” to solve the IO problem, the only meaningful support has come from Intel and Microsoft Research (for sponsoring the two-day conference at which IORG was born) and Xerox (for a grant that funded the organization’s first couple of years).

Full disclosure: Jonathan and I both serve on IORG’s board of directors.

Read the news release
Order from Amazon
Basex Blog
Overload Stories (an ongoing continuation of the book)


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The cost of email: New—and startling—numbers

Researchers in the UK and Australia have put new cost figures on email use by company employees—at least £5000 ($8175) and in some cases well over £10,000 ($16,350) per employee per year. The research appeared recently in the International Journal of Internet and Enterprise Management.

Thomas Jackson of the Department of Information Science, at Loughborough University, and colleague Sharman Lichtenstein, at Deakin University in Burwood, studied how email is used and abused at four organizations. Their formula is based on an average salary of £25,000 ($40,875). While email is, of course, the way a great deal of business gets accomplished, the researchers say its costs are increased by ambiguous unclear messages, e-mail overload, security and privacy issues, and e-mail interruptions. Their formula accounts for time spent reading email (average read time and average number of emails per day), as well as the interruption recovery time involved in reading those messages.

According to a news release from Inderscience, the report’s publisher, the survey of company email use revealed typically that:

  • Almost one in five emails was cc’ed unnecessarily to staff members other than the main recipient
  • 13% of received emails were irrelevant or untargeted
  • A mere 41%, much less than half, of received emails were for information purposes
  • Less than half of emails (46%) that required an action on the part of the recipient actually stated what the expected action was
  • 56% of employees remarked that email is used too often instead of telephone or face-to-face
  • Ironically, almost half of employees (45%) felt that their own emails were easy to read

Say Jackson and Lichtenstein: “These findings may help organisations to become more effective in managing their email communication systems. It is recommended that communication managers or others responsible for email policy and management examine their email policies and develop a ‘snapshot’ of how their employees use email. Such information will provide an organisation with a useful foundation from which to build their training to increase the effectiveness of their employees.”

The researchers also studied the effectiveness of training employees in the efficient use of email using Seminar-Based Training (SBT) and Computer-Based Training (CBT) delivery modes. Says Inderscience: “The findings suggest that SBT has a diminishing impact over a very short period of time, but a combined approach of SBT and CBT is more effective and provides better results.”

Read the news release at Alpha Galileo.


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More recommended reading

Fast Company expert blogger David Lavenda is out with a list of eight must-reads about digital distraction and information overload. The top four:

Newsweek, Feb 27, 2011 – “I Can’t Think!” – The Twitterization of our culture has revolutionized our lives, but with an unintended consequence—our overloaded brains freeze when we have to make decisions.

Time Magazine, Feb. 11, 2011 – “Wired for Distraction?” – Like it or not, social media are reprogramming our children’s brains. What’s a good parent to do?

USA Today – Feb 2, 2011 – “Social Media Users Grapple with Information Overload”

The New York Times – a 7-part series called “Your Brain on Computers” looks at how a deluge of data can affect the way people think and behave.

The other four are books—Hamlet’s Blackberry by William Powers [the best book I’ve read since Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody], The Shallows by Nicholas Carr, The Tyranny of Email by John Freeman, and The Information: A History, A Flood, A Theory by James Gleick. Lavenda also includes some factoids about overload, including this: 65 percent of North Americans spend more time with their computer than with their spouse.


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Inbox Love: A day-long download on email

It may have been all about email, but you could never have emailed the full impact of “Inbox Love” — nearly 10 hours of presentations, elbow-rubbing, demos, discussions and debates. The event took place at the Microsoft Conference Center in Mountain View, California, and was chock-full of insights about the medium we love to hate.

Jeff Bonforte, CEO of Xobni (that’s “Inbox” spelled backward), called email your “personal Wikipedia”—an incredible storage locker that knows you better than you know yourself. His company mines your email for contacts and typically find more than 5,000. Whether they’re candidates for Facebook friending is up to you.

Victoria Belotti, principal scientist at the Palo Alto Research Center, said email is the “Grand Central Station for knowledge work.” She says, like Twitter, email is like a river flowing underneath a bridge. When emails disappear and important items are forgotten, “this causes a huge amount of stress.” She also said email is not designed to do all we ask of it—and it’s a poor substitute for what it replaces.

Will the inbox die? “Stop it,” said Bonforte. “It should not only not die . . . it should get bigger.”

Belotti’s view: “Email is still going strong even with kids, but especially in the enterprise. Most people aren’t overloaded, but power users are drowning.” This presents several opportunities for entrepreneurs to consider: Constant multitasking, obligation management, managing content and critical information, “task vistas,” and application switching and window management.

Jonathan Spira, CEO of Basex and author of the forthcoming book “Overload,”disagreed with Belotti. “There are 79.7 million knowledge workers at a wide range of levels. All our research tells us that in their own world relative to what they expect, they’re overloaded.”

Knowledge workers lose 20-25 percent of their day to overload without even realizing it. Information overload also includes search—50 percent of which fail, said Spira. Basex estimates that all this costs the U.S. economy nearly $1 trillion per year.

Pierre Khawand, CEO of People-OnTheGo, said if you break down the knowledge worker’s day, he/she spends 3.27 hours on email and 1.18 hours on social media—leaving less than half the workday for focused work. His company just published a report on the impact of email and social media called “The New New Inbox.”

Inbox Love and hate mail (complete wrap of the day by Chris Nuttall at FT Tech Hub)

E-mail innovator pitches self-deleting e-mails (Rafe Needleman, CNET)

Watch the morning sessions


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