» Archive for April, 2010

Welcome to the Information Age

Thursday, April 29th, 2010 by Jonathan Spira

The Information Age had its start in the early 1980s with the break-up of the Bell System and AT&T, a move that led to a competitive telecoms environment that was able to build the commercial Internet that is somewhat taken for granted today.

This communications revolution has brought with it myriad changes in how work is done.  While as recently as five years ago, much knowledge work was relatively solitary, today knowledge workers expect to be able to tap into a variety of resources – be they people, information, tools, or the collective knowledge of an organization – when doing their work.

One thing that has changed is the recognition that knowledge workers (sometimes referred to as information workers) are the lynchpins of the Information Age.  Ironically, many of the tools that support knowledge work, while having acquired significant functionality, haven’t changed to better support new ways of working.  What has to happen is nothing less than revolutionary; software needs to adapt to the new way of working collaboratively and software development needs to support this paradigm from the ground up.

In part, little has changed within the enterprise because we have yet to develop a management science for the knowledge economy that managers can apply in crafting strategy, designing products, managing people, and leveraging technology.  It took a good 150 years from the dawn of the Industrial Revolution until the beginnings of a management science began to take shape.  Today, we are in the first quarter century of the knowledge economy and all we can do is borrow the management science from the previous epoch and try to adapt it, an action somewhat akin to trying to fit a square peg into a round hole and one resulting in great inefficiencies.

Taylorism, the management science of the industrial age first enunciated by Frederick Winslow Taylor, included standardizing work or replacing humans with machines and finding the “one best way” to perform tasks.  Indeed, a 1974 article in the New York Times discussed how companies were following this course and turning offices into factories by splitting the traditional secretary’s job into two parts and sending some secretaries off to word processing centers to type documents and others to administrative support stations to file papers and answer phones.

It is clear today that such “improvements” were not appropriate for knowledge work and such attempts exemplify the fact that we still have a long way to go.

David M. Goldes is the president of Basex.

Personal Information Overload-Fighting Strategies

Thursday, April 22nd, 2010 by Cody Burke

The Information Overload Research Group (IORG) and the Basex Information Overload Network (ION) had its joint quarterly meeting on April 7.  The topic for the meeting was individual Information Overload-fighting strategies and participants brought a wide range of interesting ideas with them.

Please, tell me what to do!

Nathan Zeldes, IORG’s president, spoke about the value of e-mail management strategies such as checking e-mail only once a day, in his case at lunch, and setting up a folder system that separates messages into those that must be dealt with immediately, today, or can be followed up on later.  Another point he stressed is that e-mail should not be used as a to-do list.

Zeldes also discussed how the use of tools, such as using a powerful indexing search engine to quickly find e-mail messages or off-loading as much as possible to RSS feeds, which can help to reduce the frustrations that arise from an overloaded and unwieldy inbox.

Jonathan Spira, IORG’s vice president for research and Basex’ chief analyst, talked about how the use of multiple monitors generally increased his productivity, but how on some occasions, when under deadline or when needing to focus exclusively on one task, he will turn off the extra screen and just use one display to complete his task.

Other tools that were mentioned in the discussion included Twitter.  Maura Thomas, a principal at Burget Avenue Management Services, uses Twitter as a search tool to find relevant information, instead of browsing through headlines and RSS feeds.  She related her experience with using the service to reduce the amount of time she would have to spend looking for information that interests her; she uses Twitter to follow people who are focused on what is relevant to her and are knowledgeable in the areas of her interests.

The use of Twitter to fight Information Overload sounds like a contradiction in terms but Thomas stressed that Twitter is like any other tool and only interrupts if you let it.  In this same vein, she noted that the key to managing Information Overload is to take control and go on the offensive; do not allow yourself to be stuck in a defensive position where you are only reacting.

The issue of control was reiterated by several speakers, including Lesa Becker, director of organizational learning and development at Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center, and Paul Silverman, president of Integra Workshops.  Both advocated taking control of one’s information flow through mindfulness, meaning being aware of the present moment and not letting ourselves be distracted by stray thoughts, and by being conscious of the impact of the choices we make.  This includes carefully picking what technology, such as Twitter, to be involved in, based on the impact it has on you.  For some, a service such as Twitter may be helpful, for others, it may be a torrent of extraneous and irrelevant information.  Nancy Snell chimed in on this to note that Information Overload is not going to stop, so the only option is to begin making individual choices to reduce its impact.

Silverman also offered a suggestion for getting more done in a day, namely to do “the worst thing first.”  He explained that this strategy pays off because it allows the knowledge workers to take control of their day, get the most pressing and/or nagging task(s) done, and hopefully regain focus for the rest of the day by not having to spend time dreading that particularly nasty task.

Another key point that was articulated multiple times was that a knowledge worker has the ability to disengage from technology tools, as well as limit the impact those tools have on the inbox to reduce their level of Information Overload.  Jared Goralnick, CEO of AwayFind, and Bill Kirwin, vice president of research at getcontrol.net both advocated strategies such as turning off e-mail notifications from social networks, sending less e-mail so as to receive less e-mail, and generally reducing the amount of incoming information by reducing the amount of outgoing information.

A discussion of what participants learnt from the meeting is taking place on the Basex Information Overload Network’s LinkedIn page.  Feel free to join in.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.

A Qwest to Merge

Thursday, April 22nd, 2010 by Jonathan Spira

In what is one of the biggest telecommunications deals seen in years, CenturyTel and Qwest Communications International have agreed to merge in an all-stock deal that values Qwest at ca. $10.6 billion.  The deal links two relatively new telecommunications giants with extensive roots in the pre-Divestiture Bell System.

On a Qwest

Qwest, founded in 1996 as a fiber-optic-based networking company, acquired Baby Bell US West in a hostile corporate takeover in June, 2000.  The company provides local service in 14 western states including Arizona, Colorado, Minnesota, Nebraska, Oregon, Utah, and Washington.  CenturyTel (née Century Telephone Enterprises) is the country’s eight largest local exchange carrier and provides services in rural areas of 26 states including Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, Tennessee, and Washington as well as a fiber optic transport system that connects 16 states in the central U.S.  In 1998 it acquired 89,000 subscriber lines and 19 exchanges in Wisconsin from Ameritech in what was once Wisconsin Bell territory.  CenturyTel also owns the former landline operations of Sprint.

In recent years, Qwest has struggled to remain competitive with its former Bell System brethren.  AT&T and Verizon (which own the majority of the former Bell System) have become the two dominant wireless players in the U.S. in recent years.  The merger will strengthen both companies’ positions and puts Qwest back in the spotlight.  During the dot-com boom, Qwest was seen as a harbinger of things to come and was valued as high as $60 billion, although it suffered greatly in recent years, in part due to accounting scandals and in part due to a lack of focus on mobile and wireless offerings.

The agreement, under which Qwest shareholders will receive 0.1664 CenturyLink shares for each share of Qwest common stock, has been approved by the boards of directors of both companies.  CenturyLink shareholders will own ca. 50.5% and Qwest shareholders will own ca. 49.5% of the combined company after the transaction closes.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex

Google Shifts Gears: New Version of Google Docs Launched

Thursday, April 15th, 2010 by David Goldes

This week Google announced the preview release of an enhanced Google Docs offering.  The latest version introduces new collaborative functionality, enhancements to the basic document and spreadsheet applications, and a new standalone diagram and drawing tool.  It is currently available to current users on an opt-in basis.

There are two aspects to the new release, 1.) collaboration tools that are unique to Google Docs, and 2.) enhancements to the applications that improve its competitiveness with other office productivity applications by adding missing features.

Google has added real-time collaboration functionality, similar in some respects to what is found in Google Wave, for the joint editing of documents and spreadsheets.  Other users (up to 50) are visible via a colored flag attached to the cursor that shows their position in the text within the document editor, or a color-coded outline of the cell selected in the spreadsheet editor.  Changes made by others are visible in real-time, with no need to refresh the document to update it.

It might be slightly uncomfortable for some knowledge workers to have their typos and not-ready-for-prime-time thoughts visible to colleagues, but the benefit of eliminating potential document conflicts may compensate in most cases.  This way of working may not be for everyone, but in certain scenarios it may make eminent sense, such as when collaborating to fill in a spreadsheet or jointly editing a document.

The document editor has been enhanced with some new functionality, including commenting, support for floating images in documents, as-you-type spell check, and the ability to set tabs with a ruler interface at the top of the screen.  The spreadsheet tool has also been enhanced with cell auto complete, a formula editing bar, and the ability to drag-and-drop columns.

The new release also includes a standalone diagram and flow chart editor.  The application enables users to create drawings and export them in PNG, JPG, SVG, and PDF file formats.  It is aimed at business use and appears best suited for flow charts and organizational diagrams.  Just as the document and spreadsheet editors, real-time collaborative editing is supported, as is the ability to start a chat session with coauthors.

Under the hood, Google Docs is also much faster, thanks to a new JavaScript layout engine and the use of HTML5.  The trade off, however, is steep as off-line use of Google Docs will disappear.  On May 3, Google will discontinue support of the previous version of Google Docs, which had allowed for offline access to documents via the Google Gears browser extension.  The company has stated that it intends to replicate the functionality with HTML5, but has not announced any specifics or a time frame.

This leaves the many users of Google Docs who require offline access in a bind.  Internet access is far from ubiquitous and there are still many places, such as most aircraft or mountain retreats, which the Internet does not reach.  The new release of Google Docs does add very appealing functionality but it comes at a significant cost.

Google’s move comes at a time when Microsoft is about to release Office 2010, which includes online access to documents and a fairly robust feature set in addition to the Office rich client, which does not require an Internet connection to work.  Organizations that want to ensure zero downtime when it comes to desktop productivity should steer clear of Google Docs until this issue has been resolved.

David M. Goldes is the president of Basex.

Am I a Supertasker?

Thursday, April 8th, 2010 by Cody Burke

Humans by nature tend to both overestimate their own abilities to do things and despair on the perceived ability of others to do the same.

24 monitors? I can handle it!

We all believe we are special. Indeed, that’s why we would all likely be in agreement that talking on the phone or texting while driving is dangerous and should not be done. Yet when push comes to shove, we may make exceptions for ourselves, and take a call that comes in while we careen down the freeway. We tell ourselves that we can handle it, that we are adept multitaskers, or supertaskers, even as we give dirty looks to others doing the same thing.

It appears that some of us are right about being supertaskers, but it is probably not who you think (meaning not you).

A recent study conducted by psychologists at the University of Utah was designed to examine the extent to which subjects could talk on a mobile phone and drive at the same time.

The 200 subjects participated in a driving simulation that mimicked ordinary traffic conditions, with occasional instances where they would have to slow down to avoid hitting something in front of them. As a baseline, each participant drove with no other stimulus and then drove while engaging in a conversation via a hands-free mobile phone. The researchers read sets of two to five words, with simple math problems that had to be indentified as true or false interspersed between the word sets. The subject was then asked to recall words in the order that they were presented.

The study found that 97.5% of the subjects’ driving was significantly impaired while on the phone, meaning they took an average of 20% longer to hit the brakes when necessary. Word recall dropped 11% and math accuracy dropped 3%.

However, the study also revealed that 2.5% of the subjects drove and multitasked the same or actually better while on the phone. For that group brake response times remained the same, math accuracy was unchanged, and word recall accuracy actually rose 3%.

Sounds great? Here is the problem.

If you think you are one of these people, you probably are not. Statistically, the odds are against you, you have about a one in 40 probability of being a supertasker. Additionally, people who are very good at things tend to underestimate their abilities, while those who are not as good tend to overestimate. This is backed up by research from Stanford that shows that those who frequently multitask are actually worse at it than those that avoid it.

For the overwhelming majority of knowledge workers, while they may believe that they are faster and more efficient by multitasking, multitasking actually slows down the flow of work and can introduce errors and mistakes. Statistics say you are unlikely to actually be a supertasker, so just don’t do it.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.

The Evolution of the Office Suite

Thursday, April 1st, 2010 by Jonathan Spira

Ten years after the PC revolution, desktop productivity software began to appear as part of suites.  In 1989, Microsoft introduced the first such offering with Microsoft Office on the Macintosh platform (a PC version followed in 1990). 

Time for the office to evolve

Time for my office to evolve?

It probably didn’t occur to the early designers that they were taking the first steps to integrate functionality that would – a few years later – start to positively impact the productivity of hundreds of millions of office workers.

One outcome of what became known as the suite wars was that Microsoft vanquished its competition (WordPerfect in word processing and Lotus 1-2-3 in spreadsheets) and became the dominant desktop productivity offering.

The concept of an office suite was originally more marketing than technology.  Bundling a word processor (the most popular desktop application) with a spreadsheet program (the second most popular) and presentation software would capture three “sales” all at once.

Up until that time, software used for desktop productivity purposes, be it processing words or calculating figures, was decidedly single purpose for much of its history.  At some point after PCs and networks became the de facto means of managing documents and finances, it occurred to developers to share certain functionality, such as a spell checker, across multiple programs.

Then technology such as OLE (object linking and embedding) was developed.  This allowed other programs to provide limited functionality within a host program, such as the generation of a chart or graph in a word processing document.

Today we take office suites for granted and Microsoft Office (in all of its iterations) has become the most widely deployed software application in the world, with an estimated 600 million users worldwide.

Microsoft has not, however, been sitting still.  Later this spring, the company will launch Microsoft Office 2010, a suite into which it has invested upwards of $2 billion in development costs.  Indeed, few people are aware of the extent to which the company conducts research and studies the users in its attempts to improve the knowledge worker’s experience with software and leverage what people can accomplish with the tools.   We have been testing the Office 2010 beta and will be reporting on it in an in-depth report shortly, but all signs point to a greatly improved user experience with far more support for knowledge sharing and collaboration than previous versions have offered.

Incidentally, by the time Microsoft releases Office 2010, many of its software engineers will already be working on the next version (code-named Office 15), an application that knowledge workers will not see until 2012 (presumably in beta form) at the earliest.

In the meantime, expect an in-depth look at What’s New in Microsoft Office 2010 next month in this space.

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