» Archive for July, 2008

What Was I Working on Again?

Friday, July 25th, 2008 by Jonathan Spira

Last week’s Information Overload conference no doubt pushed attendees above and beyond the bounds of overload.  As a public service here (as Tom Lehrer would say), I’ll review highlights.

The keynote address (mine, actually) presented an overview of the problem, including costs, problem areas, and a few things we can do about the problem right now.

Just to review:

  • The cost of unnecessary interruptions plus recovery time (time spent getting back to where you were, if indeed you do get back there) to the U.S. economy is $650 billion as of 2007.
  • Most interruptions are neither urgent nor important (but we think they are as we go and interrupt people anyway).
  • The above represents 28% of the knowledge worker’s day.
  • A mere 12% of the knowledge worker’s day is spent in thought or reflection.
  • We spend 15% of the day searching for things and 20% in meetings.

Food for thought:

  • We send too much e-mail.  When “cc” meant carbon copy, we could send three or four.  Now we think nothing of sending 300.  Let’s rethink that.
  • Our need for instant gratification (perhaps fueled by the founding of Fedex, which introduced overnight delivery in 1973), causes us to interrupt others when we don’t get an immediate answer; our (mistaken) belief that everything we are doing is both urgent and important lends a false sense of importance to our mission and that too causes us to interrupt others too much.
  • E-mail is like Tetris.  As soon as you line up the boxes, more come down.
  • Think before clicking reply-to-all, or even sending a reply of “Great. Thanks.” acknowledging someone’s e-mail.

CIO Panel
David Goldes, Basex’ president, presented Max Christoff from Morgan Stanley, Shari Pfleeger Lawrence from the Rand Corporation, and Nathan Zeldes from Intel, talking about the problems their organizations face with respect to information overload.

To review;

  • An Intel employee receives 350 e-mail messages per week on average (but executives receive an average of 300 per day).
  • At Morgan Stanley, the average employee receives 625 e-mail messages per week (but the average executive over 500 per day).
  • Intel employees spend, on average, 20 hours per week managing e-mail.

Key insight:
According to Christoff, the competitive advantage we gained from getting more information faster is starting to disappear.  Companies need to focus on how to provide more relevant information where it’s needed.

Visionary Vendor Panel
Borrowed conceptually from Basex’ Strategic Thinkers conferences, the Visionary Vendor Panel was a forum for thought leaders and visionaries. Companies were selected because they are both innovative and offer solutions that could lessen the impact of Information Overload.

ActionBase (Eyal Maor, CEO) – ActionBase cuts down on e-mail by introducing structure to workflow that gets action items to the right people, at the right time.
ClearContext (Deva Hazarika, CEO) – ClearComments provides a tool for Outlook that helps knowledge workers identify and contextually relate important information.
Quick Comments (Greg Petras, CEO) – Quick Comments is a tool that enables users to quickly extract relevant information from feedback and comments on a product, content, or expertise without sifting through pages of written comments.
RescueTime (Tony Wright, CEO) – RescueTime is a tool that keeps track of how much time is spent using various applications, such as e-mail, word processing, Web browsing, etc.
Seriosity (Leighton Read, Chairman) – Seriosity allows e-mail senders to compensate recipients with “Serios”, a form of online currency developed specifically for e-mail, creating an economic incentive to deal with more valuable information first.
Siemens (Ross Sedgewick) – Siemens OpenScape allows knowledge workers to find colleagues faster, cutting down on wasted time and phone and voicemail tag.

Bit Literacy
Mark Hurst, founder of Creative Good, spoke about the virtues of an empty inbox and the three “D’s”: Delete, Defer, and avoiD.  Computer literacy, according to Hurst is not sufficient.  Knowledge workers need to develop a far greater fluency and literacy in the use of e-mail, file management, managing images, and managing tasks.  E-mail overload, according to Hurst, is caused by “the lack of to-do management.”  Tools such as gootodo.com go a long way in reducing e-mail overload.

Before we completely overload you, we’ll pause here and continue next week.

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

How I Info-overloaded Myself by Chairing an Information Overload Conference

Friday, July 18th, 2008 by Jonathan Spira

Perhaps the most frequent question I heard yesterday at the Information Overload Research Group’s First Annual Conference (which I chaired) was, “why are you so passionate about the problem of information overload?”

When I was doing a research project in grammar school, I learnt about the Library of Alexandria.  The library was charged with collecting all of the world’s knowledge, the first effort of its kind, and became a home to scholars from around the world.  It also had one of the most original acquisition policies, namely it (possibly apocryphally) confiscated every book that came across its borders (Alexandria had a man-made port and was an early international trading hub) and copied each one, usually returning the copy, not the original, to its owner.

This (and, subsequently, the New York Public Library, which I frequented during another research project) made quite an impression on me.  But I also realized how much information was out there.  When I started working at my father’s company, Spiratone, helping select and deploy office automation systems, I began to see how information flowed throughout an organization, or sometimes how it didn’t flow.

The time I spent there created an indelible impression of how technology could sometimes work in harmony with business – and sometimes not.

It was in the early 1990s when I began to realize that the spread of then-new technologies within the enterprise, such as e-mail, were creating as many problems as they were solving.

CNBC interviewed me on productivity issues back in 1993.  The reporter, Bob Pisante, opened the segment by saying “It’s not just meetings that are taking up a ton of, time, there’s also a problem with mail.  And in this day and age, mail means e-mail.  You think you’re busy?  Jonathan Spira can get 150 e-mails a day.”

So now that I’ve given you this bit of background, fast forward to this past Monday, when I was in a meeting at the Penn Club trying to prepare for the IORG conference.  I was receiving so many “inputs” from so many people (both in the meeting and on-line relating to the meeting) that I found myself unable to compose a simple paragraph for a news release.

Preparation for the information overload conference had simply overloaded me to a point I hadn’t yet reached before.

I stopped what I was doing, took a meditative stroll through some empty rooms at the Penn Club, and returned to the task at hand about half an hour later.  Paragraph complete, I was ready to move onto other matters.

Next week we’ll present a full overview of the event with links to content from the conference.

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

E-mail Overload: How Our Actions Impact Others

Friday, July 11th, 2008 by Jonathan Spira

I send you an e-mail.  You open it, read it, think about it.  No big deal.  It only takes you just a few minutes to get back to where you were.

But magnify that by the size of your team, maybe 20 people, your division, 2000 people, your subsidiary, 20,000 people and so on.

And then consider the number of people whom you cc’d on your last note.  It was 15, wasn’t it?  Or was it, as a recent e-mail I saw, more like 300?  After all, e-mail is a great way to keep people informed – or is it?

It wasn’t even the cc’ing of the 300.  Only 10 people really needed to get that note but the other 290 each lost only maybe five minutes of their day.  That was, until a colleague hit reply to all.

Let’s just stop and recap for a moment.  By including 290 people unnecessarily in the e-mail, the sender was responsible for the loss of a minimum of 24 hours of colleagues’ time.

Now, imagine that, in this 20,000 person organization, 1% of the population sends out e-mails like this once a day.

That’s an immediate loss of 4800 hours a day, or 200 person days.  Just in one day.

Now back to our friend about to hit reply to all, just to say “Great. Thanks.”  300 people will see an e-mail from him and many will open it, let’s say half.  We just lost 12.5 person hours.

Fortunately, not all 20,000 knowledge workers in the company send out such e-mails (if they did, it would result in a loss of 20,000 person days each time it happens).

Most e-mails include far fewer recipients; the average number of people cc’d on e-mails I get is three (I am not including e-mails with zero cc recipients in this tally).  Still, each time we create a new e-mail message, it has the potential to cost our colleagues quite a bit of time.

Why am I telling you this?  I have one goal in mind.  When you feel the urge to send an e-mail, choose your recipients carefully.  Think of the cc field as a “need to know” field.  If the recipient doesn’t fall into the “need to know” category, don’t include him.  When you get an e-mail, even if you feel the need to be polite, try to restrain yourself and don’t select Reply-to-All and write “Great. Thanks.”

That is all. We now return your to your regularly scheduled information overload.

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

How to Succeed in E-mail Reduction Without Really Trying

Friday, July 4th, 2008 by Jonathan Spira

Luis Suarez, an IBM employee, threw off the shackles of e-mail, reducing the volume of e-mail he receives by 80% as reported in an article he penned for the New York Times.

But the story of Luis Suarez is a cautionary one.  Yes, with careful planning and negotiation, one can rid oneself of e-mail.

It’s important, however, not to throw the baby out with the bath water here.  There are a lot of good things about e-mail and how we use it (it’s less intrusive, we don’t have to respond in real time, we document what we are saying) – and there are some not-so-good things as well (we obsess over it, we feel compelled to respond in real time, we send too much of it, we cc and bcc too much, we just don’t know when to stop replying).

E-mail has become a critical tool in the knowledge economy arsenal, yet it’s also a subject of derision.


Because we simply don’t know how to manage our own use of it and how to use it intelligently.

The research we’ve done here at Basex, covered by the Times most recently here (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/14/technology/14email.html?scp=1&sq=BASEX&st=nyt), shows that we lose a great deal to poorly thought-out use of a variety of tools, including e-mail, telephone, instant messaging, and so on.

We constantly use the various tools at our disposal to interrupt one another – incessantly.  Send an e-mail?  Better call or IM to make sure it got there.  Received an advisory e-mail?  Make sure to say “thanks” to the sender – and might as well reply-to-all so everyone can see how we’re on top of things.

For a variety of reasons (some of which I covered in my book Managing the Knowledge Workforce), we work with the presumption that everything we are sending or saying is both important and urgent at the same time.  That means that we hold the tasks the recipient of our missives is undertaking as being of lesser importance.

We also seek instant gratification (a phenomenon I traced back to the advent of Fedex in April 1973).  We want everything “absolutely, positively” now.  Even overnight isn’t good enough anymore.

We’ve only been using these tools (e-mail, mainly) for a decade or two – we didn’t figure things out in the industrial economy until we hit the 150-year mark.

We’ll simply need to make adjustments as we go along.

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