» Archive for February, 2007

Meeting Overload

Friday, February 23rd, 2007 by Jonathan Spira

The corollary to information overload is meeting overload.  Although meetings were common decades ago, they have proliferated in an age of easy communication.  Conference calls (and even video conference calls) with far flung colleagues, a host in Chicago, participants in Vienna, Sydney, and Jerusalem, among others, are not uncommon.  What is crucial here is the information that is missing in these calls.

Participants in such meetings may believe that they are communicating far more information than they actually are.  Over 40 years ago, Ray L. Birdwhistell demonstrated that “no more than 30 to 35 percent of the social meaning of a conversation or an interaction is carried by the words.”  The rest is communicated with kinesics, non-verbal behavior, commonly called body language, such as facial expression and gestures.

Such body language might convey many specific meanings and their interpretation may be both context-based and culture bound.  Without the ability to see and interpret kinesics, there is a significant risk of misinterpretation, particularly in intercultural communications.

In addition, many knowledge workers today are called upon to attend more meetings than would be necessary to do their jobs.  Many tend to invite more colleagues than necessary to meetings, a process reminiscent of the overuse of the copy function in e-mail.

Ever since AT&T (at the 1964 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows) unveiled the Picturephone, companies have been promoting videoconferencing systems to replace face-to-face meetings.  The technology today is greatly improved, with systems that emulate an in-room experience using large screen displays and technology that eliminates jerky video, but they are too costly to be placed into service for the hundreds of thousands of meetings which take place every day amongst knowledge workers.

Meetings are, of course, necessary but as Rosalind said in As You Like It, there can be too much of a good thing.

But companies are doing something about the problem.  IBM introduced ThinkFridays across the company. Friday afternoons everywhere are to be free of non-essential meetings and interruptions.  The practice was informally begun by IBM programmers, who used the time to conduct research or write papers in relative peace.

Similarly, Dow Corning sponsors a no-meetings week once each quarter, banning non-essential meetings.  This of course begs the question, what is a non-essential meeting.  Share your thoughts on this; e-mail me at meetings@basex.com

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

Good Customer Service – Giving Credit Where Credit is Due

Friday, February 16th, 2007 by Jonathan Spira

For all the times where large companies are criticized for not doing enough for the customer, there are very few reports of customer service that is above and beyond the customer’s expectations.

I am happy to report three such encounters in the past week here at Basex.

First there is the matter of my IBM ThinkPad.  Basex has long been an IBM customer and we have more or less standardized on the ThinkPad line, which is now owned by Lenovo, the Chinese computer giant that purchased IBM’s PC group in 2005.

My current ThinkPad, an IBM T42 (my 5th since 1999, when I started with the IBM ThinkPad 600), had developed the unfortunate habit of crashing when  being returned to its dock.  Lenovo had changed the motherboard two months ago for the same problem and this particular machine has had other issues dating back to its arrival (despite the problems, I still liked the machine), so Lenovo offered me a new ThinkPad T60 which has more hard disk space, a little more RAM, and a much faster processor.  In addition, Lenovo is sending me a new dock and extra battery since the existing accessories are incompatible with the new machine.

Lenovo could have taken a more defensive position, since the machine was two years old (the warranty is three years with onsite service), but they chose not only the path that will lead to greater customer satisfaction but probably one that will minimize their costs in having to support my existing machine.

The second example comes from Kaz, a healthcare appliance company that recently took over Slant Fin’s humidifier line.  Our office manager discovered that a brand new Slant Fin humidifier wasn’t providing any humidity (we find that humidifiers in the office keep down static electricity and make the environment much more comfortable).  After contacting Slant Fin and being referred to Kaz, the Kaz customer service representative simply asked our office manager to return the product’s electrical cord, upon receipt of which she would ship a brand new humidifier.

I have to give Kaz a lot of credit for common sense.  Why spend money to return a product when it will only be discarded.

Our third customer service story is a more personal one.  My Conair hair dryer stopped working.  I liked this one because it folded and had a retractable cord, making it easy to put away.  I was going to buy the same model (mine was almost two years old) but couldn’t find it in any store.  So I contacted Conair and the customer service representative told me it was still under warranty and that they would send me a new and improved version of the same model at no charge if I sent mine back.  I was told to expect the replacement within three weeks.

I sent the defective unit back early last week and was pleasantly surprised to receive the replacement unit by Priority Mail first thing this morning (I am writing this on Monday, February 12th).

It is important to note that these examples of excellent customer service have nothing to do with which CRM or KCRM system the vendor is using.  Rather, it shows that these companies put themselves in the customers’ shoes and used tremendous amounts of common sense to keep customers satisfied.  And isn’t that what this is all about?

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

Human Factors

Friday, February 9th, 2007 by Jonathan Spira

In looking at an interruption, it is important to determine whether something is important, urgent, or both.  Many knowledge workers simply do not differentiate, or see everything as both important and urgent.  Something that is important may not require an immediate interruption, whereas something that is urgent would certainly be more likely to merit and surely call for an interruption.  Importance can also vary, based on the needs of the group or organization.

Even more important to note is the fact that each knowledge worker has different priorities, different tasks, and a different idea of what is urgent or important.  What is urgent and/or important to me at a given moment might not be as urgent and/or important to you.

Knowledge workers may be constantly busy, but that doesn’t make them productive or efficient.  It also doesn’t mean that what they are doing is aligned with the strategic goals of their employer.

Sometimes a knowledge worker might feel like a ping pong ball, bouncing around from task to task.  The unending barrage of work – be it e-mail, meetings, or teleconferences – just like the Tetris squares, never stops.

Very few knowledge workers could tell you everything on their plate – including priorities and deadlines.  The task management tools that come with Lotus Notes and Microsoft Outlook leave a lot to be desired and project management tools that companies use to guide large projects also don’t offer a worker-based view that would help an individual knowledge worker plan and prioritize.

Still, knowledge workers can be their own worst enemy.  The majority of knowledge workers tend to open new e-mail immediately upon notification.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

Information Overload – How is it Impacting Your Organization?

Friday, February 2nd, 2007 by Jonathan Spira

To paraphrase an old saying, we try to do our work, but along the way information gets in the way.  It’s not unlike Tetris, where the goal is to keep the blocks from piling up.  You barely align one, and another is already on its way.  Information, in the form of e-mail, instant messages, text messages, Web pages, discussion forums, RSS feeds, wikis, Weblogs, phone calls, letters, magazines, and newspapers, keeps piling up.  In fact, we have become far more proficient in generating information than we are in managing it, and we have also built technology that easily allows us to create new information without human intervention.

It isn’t a new problem and it was very much on the minds of thought leaders of an earlier information age centuries ago, including Roger Bacon, Samuel Johnson, and Konrad Gessner whose 1545 Bibliotheca universalis warned of the “confusing and harmful abundance of books” and promulgated reading strategies for coping with the overload of information.

Information overload was also predicted by Alvin Toffler in Future Shock (1970).  In 1989, Richard Saul Wurman warned of it in his book Information Anxiety.

As I mentioned two columns back, a few weeks ago I participated in a workshop on “Infomania,” or information overload as most of us call it, with 20 people in attendance.  Attendees ranged from corporate managers who are facing this problem to academics studying the problem.

Today, for companies with thousands of knowledge workers, information overload has become a major problem, costing them perhaps billions of dollars in lower productivity and hampered innovation.  It may also be harmful to employees in a variety of ways, including lowering comprehension levels and skewing the work-life balance.

Each of us loses an average of 2.1 hours per day thanks to unnecessary interruptions and recovery time.  This costs the U.S. economy $588 billion per annum (See our report The Cost of Not Paying Attention for more details).

We are preparing a white paper on this subject and I would like to get your input.  Please tell me what your organization is doing about information overload and what your own thoughts are on the subject.  Please send me a note at overload@basex.com

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.