» Archive for March, 2007

Information Overload: Front Page News

Friday, March 30th, 2007 by David Goldes

Organizations of all shapes and sizes are facing new problems that develop as we enter the knowledge economy.  The problem of information overload, which costs billions of dollars in lower productivity and thwarted innovation, is impacting your organization right now whether you realize it or not.

One question revolves around how much information any one person can manage at a given time.  Compound that with the fact that information technology allows information (imagine that) to be generated at a faster and faster pace and companies whose employees’ work revolves largely around interaction with computers are in trouble.

This past Sunday, the New York Times put the problem of multitasking and information overload on the front page in a story by Steve Lohr .  Lohr sought out experts (including my colleague Jonathan Spira, chief analyst at Basex) and presents an excellent survey of research in this area.

As a regular reader of Basex research, you already know this is a problem: one we pegged at $588 billion 18 months ago.  It’s no longer $588 billion however; recent calculations by some of my colleagues show the current figure to be closer to $650 billion pear year.

This type of discussion, when it appears in mainstream media, is usually buried in the middle of the business or technology section.  That it is on the front page demonstrates that it has moved into the mainstream.  What makes the Times’ article even more compelling are the photos of “potentially dangerous” activities (such as riding a bike or crossing a street while sending a text message).

But what about the Millenials, the generation that was born multitasking?  Won’t they do better?  Current research suggests that this is illusory.  While they may be good multitaskers, research suggests they are no more productive than older generations.  Interruptions slow down the brain and increase the likelihood of mistakes regardless of age.  Harley Freeman, a freshman at Texas Christian University and columnist for the Daily Skiff,  thinks that enough is enough.  In her column yesterday on the dangers of multitasking, she chokes on the $650 billion figure.  Her recommendation: “While society tells us to go, go, go, I believe that sometimes we should just take a chill pill.”

[Editor's note: you can obtain a copy of our latest report, Information Overload: We Have Met the Enemy and He is Us, by clicking here.]

David M. Goldes is the president of Basex.

What If the Well Runs Dry?

Friday, March 30th, 2007 by Jonathan Spira

A Brief Note from the Road Warrior

I’m writing this at the Tacoma Sheraton where I am speaking at a conference.

The hotel is tired and faded but it boasts wireless Internet in every room.  What the hotel doesn’t promise, however, is that there will be working Internet.

Yes, here we go again.  As I sat in my room with a colleague, preparing for my presentation, every tab on my browser was replaced by a Sheraton “Connect to the Internet” tab, which in many cases just would not go away.  Only rarely was I able to connect to a page and that lasted at most for a minute or two.

I spoke with someone at the front desk.  The finger was pointed at a possibly weak signal (yes, the signal was weak but that wasn’t the problem).  They offered to send up a wireless bridge, which wouldn’t help but the front desk seemed to feel it would improve the signal (it didn’t, as I knew before we plugged it in, but I had to humor them).

I then spoke with technical support, located several states away.

No problems reported but I gave them ping times for www.yahoo.com of over 700 ms and he agreed that something was amiss.

To the hotel’s credit, the front desk clerk immediately offered to credit the cost of the Internet (“why should you pay for something if it’s not working) but on the whole, I’d rather have working Internet and pay the fee.

24 hours later, the system was “working”.  It was slow, but at least it worked.

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

Review: Tacoma Sheraton

Friday, March 30th, 2007 by Jonathan Spira

WHAT’S IT LIKE

Built in 1986, the Tacoma Sheraton appeared not to have been vacuumed since opening day. I had an uneasy feeling about this hotel from the moment I walked into the lobby and I was not disappointed. As I checked in (I was a speaker at a conference, and my room was to be part of the master bill), I verified the billing arrangements only to be told I was to pay for my own room. I told the front desk clerk to look into this and just to check me in. This was eventually resolved, eventually, but the front desk clerk needs further training in how to interface with guests. Aside from this person, everyone else at the hotel was exceptionally pleasant and friendly.

WHERE IS IT?

It’s in Tacoma. I only went there to speak at a conference. Why the organizers selected this venue is beyond me.

ROOMS

I was given a room on the 22nd floor, a “Preferred Floor,” with a view of the water, some buildings, and a few condemned houses that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a third world country.

The room was spacious and the armoire smelled of fresh cedar. It did not seem very clean; the furnishings were old and tired. The bath, which had an almost brand new shower curtain, also had a three-foot long hair curling around it. The lighting in the bathroom sometimes took a minute or two to get to a decent level of brightness.

ROAD WARRIOR SUPPORT

The hotel is tired and faded but it boasts wireless Internet in every room. What the hotel doesn’t promise, however, is that there will be working Internet.

As I sat in my room with a colleague, preparing for my presentation, every tab on my browser was replaced by a Sheraton “Connect to the Internet” tab, which in many cases just would not go away. Only rarely was I able to connect to a page and that lasted at most for a minute or two.

To the hotel’s credit, the front desk clerk immediately offered to credit the cost of the Internet (”why should you pay for something if it’s not working?”) but on the whole, I’d rather have working Internet and pay the fee.

The next morning, the system was “working”. It was slow, but at least it worked.

RESTAURANTS AND BARS

The rooftop lounge would have been pleasant if its furnishings hadn’t appeared to come out of a thrift store. The view of Tacoma at night was much prettier than when the city was actually visible during the day. Service was pleasant but sporadic. The restaurant served a hearty buffet breakfast and the service was excellent.

BUSINESS AND MEETING FACILITIES

Meeting rooms were exceptionally well sound-proofed although very bland. Two of the meals (a sit-down lunch and dinner banquet) were quite good all things considered; the buffet lunch left a bad taste in my mouth, literally. The on-site AV company managed to change mic and sound board configurations (I was presenting three times and the sessions were being recorded for an eventual podcast) without explanation. They connected our recorder to an input rather than an output so the first session was lost.

LEISURE

I was too busy trying to get the Internet to work than to seek out the gym.

MY VERDICT

I couldn’t wait to leave. And I could not in good conscience recommend this to anyone nor would I ever come back. There are far nicer hotels nearby in such cities such Redmond and Bellevue. The carpeting in the elevators and halls looked like it had last been cleaned when Jimmy Carter was president. Breakfast trays from room service that were near the elevator on my floor mid-morning were still there when I returned at 5 p.m.

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

Beijing Journal Part II

Friday, March 23rd, 2007 by Ellen Pearlman

As I am settling in Beijing, I am adjusting to some of the quirks and inconveniences of being a non-Chinese-speaking/reading visitor.  For example, when someone tries to text message me, the phone naturally displays it in Chinese characters.  Or when I try to pay for Skype through a credit card instead of PayPal, it takes over 48 hours to get card approval.  Though minor inconveniences, these setbacks could be annoying when dealing with time sensitive materials.

I am just beginning to get a handle on the Chinese censorship of the Internet, which is quite subtle.  I can get CNN and the NY Times, but if I type in the word “dharma” I get filtered out almost completely (I guess it’s a dirty word) and most You Tube broadcasts will not pull from the server, regardless of content.  The censorship seems to be roving, a bit arbitrary though extremely strict.  Besides pornography they are avid on restricting spirituality.  The thing about censorship is that you don’t now what is being censored, because you don’t know exactly what you are looking for.  There is a terribly odd quality of vacuum or mist, like you know it is there but you can’t see it, so you don’t know what it is you are not seeing.

The censorship works on two levels, the first is through Google China, which filters content, and the second is through delivering information from the server.  So even if you find the header you want in Goggle, the server just refuses to load the page, which is a raw, in your face, way of saying you’ve been found out and this is restricted information.  The page will just not load.  This dual filtering is very efficient and lethal and works towards creating a collective amnesia.  Of course, I can only speak about the English language as I have no idea of what is going on in Chinese, though I suspect it may be the same, if not worse.  It is equivalent to going to a library and looking up the topic “1960′s party scene”.  You may be looking for stories of wild parties in California and instead the only returns you get are the 1960′s Communist Youth International Party Conference.  This way you never know there were parties in California, even though it is common knowledge in the rest of the world.  So if you don’t know about it you don’t miss it.

The end result of this kind of information filter is a more docile and reined in population that essentially doesn’t know, and for the most part doesn’t care about what they are missing.  And it seems that the few who do care, and speak about it in chat rooms, are monitored by internal policing and I really don’t know what happens to them.

A more  blatant example is what happened the other night.  I was at a social gathering and was talking to a group of Chinese about the Paris Hilton debacle, both the sex tapes that circulated on the Internet, and her reality TV show with Nicole Ritchie.  The Chinese are well aware of the Hilton Hotel Chain, though they had never heard of Paris before.  I realized the whole story of her adventures, or misadventures had been filtered out of all the news media in all forms.  Now that’s one efficient censorship machine.  But, on the other hand, they allow, and encourage American Idol.  Go figure.

Analyst Ellen Pearlman is on assignment in China

Rethinking How We Work

Friday, March 16th, 2007 by Jonathan Spira

Or Just Read Every Other Line of Your E-mail

Information is the new currency of our society yet workers’ accounts seem to be mostly overdrawn.  A typical worker gets at least 200 e-mails, dozens of instant messages, multiple phone calls (office phone and mobile phone), and several text messages, not to mention being bombarded by a vast amount of content that he/she has to contend with.

Information overload has become a significant problem for companies of all sizes, with some large organizations losing billions of dollars each year in lower productivity and hampered innovation.

It’s not just a case of too much e-mail, too many interruptions, too many projects, and too much content.  It’s all these things clashing, sometimes like an orchestra without a conductor.

Put succinctly, information overload affects everyone reading this column.  Just yesterday, I was speaking with a rather overloaded manager in the automotive industry.  “I read every other line of an e-mail” she told me, explaining how she copes.  Her tongue-in-cheek comment aside, its clear that important items are missed, both in e-mail and the many other places where we keep content, such as intranets and portals, Weblogs, wikis, Web pages, journals… the list goes on and on.

This week we officially released our report Information Overload: We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us.  Although I realize it may temporarily add to your overabundance of information (my father would say “zu viel des Guten” – or too much of a good thing), you can download the report without charge at http://www.basex.com/btwoverload.

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

Managing Information Overload: 10 Tips for Survival in an Information Age

Wednesday, March 14th, 2007 by Jonathan Spira

Information is the new currency of our society yet workers are drowning in information.  A typical worker gets 200 e-mails, dozens of instant messages, multiple phone calls (office phone and mobile phone), and several text messages, not to mention the vast amount of content that he has to contend with.

Information overload has become a significant problem for companies of all sizes, with some large organizations losing billions of dollars each year in lower productivity and hampered innovation.

It’s not just a case of too much e-mail, too many interruptions, too many projects, and too much content. It’s all these things clashing — sometimes like an orchestra without a conductor.

Basex has been developing strategies for coping with information overload and has prepared ten tips designed to ease the burden. These tips are included in a new report, Information Overload: We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us.

Information Overload is not unlike the game of Tetris, where the goal is to keep the blocks from piling up.  You barely align one and another is ready to take its place.

TEN STEPS TO HELP MANAGE INFORMATION OVERLOAD

E-MAIL
1.)  I will not e-mail someone and then two seconds later follow up with an IM or phone call.

2.)  I will refrain from combining multiple themes and requests in a single e-mail.

3.)  I will make sure that the subject of my e-mail clearly reflects both the topic and urgency of the missive.

4.)  I will read my own e-mails before sending them to make sure they are comprehensible to others.

5.)  I will not overburden colleagues with unnecessary e-mail, especially one word replies such as “Thanks!” or “Great!” and will use “reply to all” only when absolutely necessary.

INSTANT MESSAGING AND PRESENCE AWARENESS

6.)  I will not get impatient when there’s no immediate response to my message.

7.)  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

8.)  I will recognize that the intended recipient of my communications is not a mind-reader and will supply details in my messages accordingly.

9.)  I will recognize that typed words can be misleading in terms of both tone and intent.

10.) I will do whatever I can do to facilitate the transfer and sharing of knowledge.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.  David M. Goldes is President and Senior Analyst at Basex.

Beijing Journal

Thursday, March 8th, 2007 by Ellen Pearlman

Three days before I am to fly to China, I encounter a problem with my ThinkPad.  With the help of Lenovo tech support in Atlanta, Georgia I find out that my ThinkPad’s wireless card has gone POOF.  The day before I am to leave I receive a replacement card.  I call tech support again, and am told to watch the instructional videos on line that show how to remove the 4 screws for the keyboard, 9 screws for the palm rest, and then how to swap out the wireless card, which resembles a memory card.  I print the instructions out, and turn my computer over.  The Phillips head screwdriver I have doesn’t work on the special screws and, as I am leaving for Beijing in a scant 12 hours, I throw up my hands and decide I will take care of it after landing.

Once in Beijing, having dinner with my hosts, I immediately tell them that I need a Lenovo store in order to have them install the wireless card.  The next day, after a flurry of phone calls, three Chinese gentlemen show up at my door.  Only one of them speaks English.  He takes out his tool kit and according to my memory of IBM’s instructions (which I repeat to him), he takes out the 4 keyboard screws and 9 palm rest screws with his special screwdriver.  The keyboard comes off easily, but the palm rest board does not follow suit.  He works on it for 25 minutes but it will not budge and neither of us can figure it out.  Finally he just gently lifts it up so he does not break the plastic and is then able to swap out the wireless card.  He puts it all back but it still refuses to function.  He then takes his portable USB drive, goes to a business next door, accesses the Internet, downloads a new driver from the Lenovo site, hooks up his portable drive to my laptop, installs the new driver, and voilà, I am immediately able to access my WLAN connection.  Total cost for the two hour on-site English speaking visit?  RMB 180, or $23.25. Priceless? Well, almost.

Analyst Ellen Pearlman is on assignment in China.

Mini Y2K Looms in Daylight Saving Change

Tuesday, March 6th, 2007 by Jonathan Spira

Spring Ahead with Caution

This coming Sunday morning, while most people are asleep, the United States and parts of Canada will switch to Daylight Saving Time at 2 h local time.  This is in accordance with the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and is three weeks earlier than in previous years (it ends one week later than usual, on the first Sunday in November).  If you don’t think that these changes are a big deal, change the time on your servers by an hour and see what happens.  Its impact will extend well beyond computers, to legions of business travelers and mobile knowledge workers, among others.

The change means the United States will be out of sync with the rest of the world for longer than usual.  Europe used to change its clocks one week before the U.S.  Now most of Europe will switch to daylight saving time on March 25, two weeks later.  [Most of Asia, Africa, and South America do not observe daylight saving time at all.]

Daylight Saving Time is a system of managing the changing amounts of daylight that occur during the year, with a goal of maximizing daylight hours during typical waking hours.  It was first proposed by Benjamin Franklin in 1784 but was not broadly adopted until the early twentieth century.  By adjusting clocks ahead by an hour, people can have more daylight available during the workday.  For example, in the case of someone who typically awakens at 7 h, since in the spring the sun rises earlier each day, an individual would have to wake up at 6 h to take advantage of the additional daylight.  Instead, by moving the clock ahead by one hour, that person can continue to wake up at 7 h and enjoy more daylight in the evening hours.

The last change to the Daylight Saving Time schedule was in 1986, when legislation changing Daylight Saving Time from the last Sunday in April to the first Sunday in April was enacted.

In case you are wondering why we are doing this now, it’s not just to enjoy a little bit more sunlight.  Although the savings are almost minuscule on an individual basis, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, a non-profit group, estimated that the cumulative benefit of the change through the year 2020 will be a savings of ca. $4.4 billion and 10.8 million metric tons less carbon sent into the environment.  According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, for every day we are on Daylight Saving Time, we trim one percent of the country’s electrical consumption.

Since late last year, companies have sent out all-hands memos to employees asking them to help identify systems that might be impacted by the time change.  These systems range from automated wake-up systems in hotels to systems that schedule airline crew members and slot aircraft for gates.  In addition, many computer-to-computer systems may also be impacted.

Most knowledge workers should be covered by now, at least insofar as their desktop or laptop computers are concerned.  Microsoft released a single global time zone update for Windows XP Service Pack 2 and Windows Server 2003 (and for Windows Server 2003 Service Pack 1) that automatically installed.  This update included updates for all DST-related changes from 2007 or that have taken place since the operating system’s original release.  The updated time zone definitions will also ship with Windows Vista.  Windows XP SP1 and older operating systems have passed their end of support dates and did not receive the update although they can be manually updated in some cases.

That covers operating systems but doesn’t mean that we are out of the woods yet.  Software that supports calendar entries, such as Lotus Notes and Domino and Microsoft Outlook and Exchange, and other time-zone-aware calendar systems, are also impacted.  If you created an entry that falls within the extended Daylight Saving Time period before the application of extended DST rules, it will appear incorrectly after the extended DST rules have been applied.  Entries that fall between March 11, 2007 and March 31, 2007 will appear an hour later than originally scheduled.  Entries that fall between October 28, 2007 and November 4, 2007 will appear an hour earlier than scheduled.  For example, if you create an entry today for 10 h on Monday, March 12, 2007, the entry will display at 11 h after the rules are applied.

What you can do to avoid problems:

First, double check any calendar entries or plans for the period March 11 -  March 31, 2007 and October 28 – November 4, 2007.

Second, make certain to adjust or update your operating system to apply the changed Daylight Saving Times rules if this hasn’t already taken place.  PDAs such as Palm Treos or BlackBerry devices should also be updated.

Third, remember that Daylight Saving Time is not observed in Hawaii, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and Arizona (with the exception of the Navajo Nation).  Until 2006, the counties in the Eastern Time Zone of Indiana did not observe Daylight Saving Time and remained on standard time year round.  As of April 2006, all of Indiana observes Daylight Saving Time.

Finally, get a good night’s sleep.

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

Hope You Don’t Mind the Interruption, But…

Thursday, March 1st, 2007 by Jonathan Spira

It’s funny.  Hardly a day goes by that a journalist or CIO type doesn’t interrupt me about the problem of interruptions and information overload.  It’s not surprising.  Back in 2005, we calculated that interruptions cost the U.S. economy $588 billion per annum, based on the 2.1 hours per day that each knowledge worker loses to unnecessary interruptions and recovery time.  But this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Interruptions and recovery time are just part of the problem of information overload.  Too much stuff.  Content (which could be Web content, e-mail, text messages, instant messages, wikis, Weblogs, the list goes on and on) flying at you nonstop.  Most of it isn’t urgent nor important, and we could probably do without a lot of it to begin with.  But even with today’s advanced technologies, we are unable to filter out what we absolutely don’t need to see.

Innately, most knowledge workers are aware of it on some level.  Eva Leonard, knowledge worker extraordinaire and editor-in-chief of Business Traveler magazine, just told me that “it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.”

But few people are doing anything about it and fewer still are aware of how deeply it impacts their organizations.  When a company has tens of thousands of employees, information overload can cost billions as it limits innovation and discovery, and disrupts knowledge work.  In the forefront are people like Max Christoff, an executive director in Morgan Stanley’s Information Technology department, and Nathan Zeldes, at Intel.  Both are in the process of examining ways of lessening the negative impact of information overload on their organizations.

We at Basex haven’t been sitting still on the issue.  For the past month, practically everyone here has been involved in research relating to information overload.

The fruits of our labor?  A new research report:  Information Overload: We Have Met the Enemy and He is Us.

Next week we’ll be announcing a Multi-Client Study for Information Overload Strategies.  Stay tuned.

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


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