» Archive for August, 2010

In the briefing room: Skype Connect

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010 by Cody Burke

In early 2009, Skype launched the beta of Skype for SIP, its enterprise-focused offering that connects Skype to IP-PBX or Unified Communications (UC) systems.

Is this the party to whom I am speaking?

18 months later, Skype Connect (née Skype for SIP) moved out of beta after a long gestation period, and we sat down with David Gurlé, general manager and vice president of the Skype for Business unit, to find out what had changed and what the company learnt during the beta period.

Since this is Skype’s foray into enterprise sales, we weren’t surprised that this has been a learning experience.  Compared to 18 months ago, the company now has a better understanding of the expectations that customers have for support, call quality, ease of setup, and features.  For the final release, Skype added 24×7 support, a configuration wizard, and features such as conference calling.

As a result, setting up Skype Connect is now quite easy.  Using Skype Manager, users select the number of lines they need, and purchase and configure Skype Connect.  Features include outbound calling to landlines and mobile phones at standard Skype per-minute rates, inbound call reception from lines in a corporate PBX via online Skype numbers, and inbound call reception from Skype Click and Call buttons placed on Web sites.  Additionally, Skype Connect includes the ability to use call and management features from existing PBX and UC systems such as logging, call recording, auto-attendant, voicemail, conferencing, automatic call distribution, and call routing.

Gurlé noted that one of the most encouraging outcomes of the beta program was that many users (there are 2400 distinct customers, but actual user numbers are not available) began with Skye Connect as a secondary network option, but then adopted the service as their primary option.

Gurlé also stated that the option of using embeddable click-to-call buttons on Web sites had led to adoption in call center scenarios.  Also, based on user data, the number of outgoing calls and inbound calls on the service were roughly equal.

Customers who participated in the beta program included companies in finance, healthcare, travel, high tech, and hospitality, and were generally organizations with over 50 people.  A common theme that linked the beta testers was that they were organizations operating across multiple sites.

For Gurlé, the next step for Skype Connect is to establish itself in the market and demonstrate to customers that they can rely on the company for enterprise-level service.  Future enhancements that are being mulled over include video support as well as the ability to place IP to IP calls, bypassing the PSTN network.

In order to gain significant traction in the market, however, Skype will need to form partnerships with telecommunications and network providers as well as the many systems integrators that now serve the SMB market.  Gurlé says that Skype will be announcing some channel partners in the not-too-distant future.  In the meantime Skype has certified Skype Connect for PBX and UC offerings from Avaya, Cisco, Siemens, SIPfoundry, and ShoreTel.  It can also work with TDM PBXs and Key Systems via third-party IP gateways from AudioCodes, Grandstream, and VoSKY.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.

Are We Paying Attention?

Thursday, August 26th, 2010 by Jonathan Spira

“Pay attention in class” is something many pupils have heard from their teachers, but what exactly does it mean to pay attention? We define the phrase “to pay attention” as meaning to “heed” or “be attentive to.” In the workplace, especially when it comes to knowledge work, we need to understand it as being much more, namely as a complex cognitive ability.

Hold your head for better concentration

In 1890, William James, in his textbook Principles of Psychology, provided what has become the classic definition of attention:

“Everyone knows what attention is. It is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. Focalization, concentration, of consciousness are of its essence. It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state which in French is called distraction, and Zerstreutheit in German.”

We also know that attention has its own circuitry in the brain and that specialized networks carry out various functions, namely achieving and maintaining alertness, the control of thoughts and feelings, and orienting to sensory events.

But paying attention isn’t a simple, straightforward act. The barrage of information and interruptions makes it extremely difficult to do so.

There are, however, ways to cut back on the multitasking and interruptions, shaping your own environment and work style so that you better use your attentional networks. If you have a difficult problem or a conundrum to solve, you need to think about where you work best. Right now, people seem to hope they’ll be able to think or create or problem-solve in the midst of a noisy, cluttered, and interrupted environment. However, to optimize your attention, quiet and uninterrupted time is a far better starting point.

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

How Information Overload Wears Us Down

Thursday, August 19th, 2010 by Cody Burke

“I generally avoid temptation unless I can’t resist it.”
-Mae West

Temptation surrounds all of us and knowledge workers are not exempt; we are tempted daily by the allure of the Internet, social networking, news sites, and real-time communication with friends and colleagues.

Care for another?

These temptations must be avoided to remain productive, however, it appears that self-control isn’t a limitless resource: we can run out of it if we are not careful.

Exercising self-control is critical to being a productive worker.  Schedules must be kept, non-work activities must be kept to a minimum, and distractions must be filtered out.  Unfortunately, self-control is also finite.  Studies in both humans and animals have shown that resisting temptation depletes glucose levels, which in turn reduces the ability to focus on challenging tasks.

In one study, human volunteers were divided into two groups.  One group was told they may eat the provided chocolate chip cookies while the other group was told to not touch the cookies but to instead snack on some radishes.  Needless to say, the group eating the cookies was not exercising self-control by resisting the charms of the radishes, but the radish-eating group had to resist the appeal of the tasty cookies.

Both groups were then asked to complete an impossible puzzle, and the length of time they would commit before giving up was measured.  The cookie group lasted an average of 19 minutes before giving up, faring much better than the radish group who on average gave up after just eight minutes.

The study was repeated with dogs where one group did nothing and the other was asked to sit still for ten minutes (a mentally exhausting task for a dog), and then attempt to remove treats from a chew toy that had been altered to make it impossible.  The results were the same, the dogs who had already exerted self-control had far less patience for the new task.

The studies demonstrate two things.  One is that our ability to exert self-control is tied to glucose levels (so eat more snacks). The second is that the act of restraining ourselves is mentally and physically taxing.  By subjecting ourselves to temptation that we must actively resist, such as online distractions and constant communication, we degrade our ability to be effective at our jobs.

For reducing Information Overload and its impact, the answer (aside from more glucose), is that perhaps we have to remove temptation altogether, so we do not expend valuable energy controlling ourselves.  Basically, keep out of temptation’s way until you are done working.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.

Information Overload Bots in the Market?

Thursday, August 12th, 2010 by Cody Burke

Warning: Information Overload bots at work?

Information Overload is often thought of as an annoyance and a productivity killer – but there are far more nefarious aspects to it, such as spreading disinformation that misleads competitors, which can in turn disrupt markets.

Alexis Madrigal, writing in the Atlantic, reported that Jeffrey Donovan, a software engineer at Nanex, a data services firm, uncovered the activity of trading bots in electronic stock exchanges that send thousands of orders a second. The orders have buy and sell prices that are not near to market prices, meaning they would not ever be part of a real trade. The activities of these bots are not noticeable unless viewed on an extremely small time scale, in this case just milliseconds.

Donovan noticed the strange activity when looking for causes of the May 2 “Flash Crash” in the Dow, when it plunged nearly 1,000 points over a few minutes. He managed to plot the activity, and found distinct patterns emerge. The patterns show that the bots are making these extremely quick and non-serious orders (meaning with no intention of buying or selling anything) at almost all times.

Donovan’s theory, although not universally supported, is that rival trading companies could use the bots to introduce noise into the market, and use the delay caused by the noise to gain a millisecond advantage in trading, which in high frequency trading, may be significant.

There are other theories to explain the activity, including that the bots are actually real trading algorithms being tested, that they are a financial radar that is probing the market, and even that they are an emergent AI of sorts. Ultimately, no one really seems to know what the bots are doing or whom they belong to.

Regardless of the motives of these mysterious bots, they raise the specter of using Information Overload as a weapon, whereby you distract your competitor with information noise.

It is possible that the introduction of these orders on a timescale small enough in order to avoid detection may have played a part in the May 2 crash, and may play a role in future crashes. However, Madrigal notes in his article that, although Donovan believes that this kind of bot activity may have been a factor on May 2, he also stresses that there were many other variables, making assigning blame next to impossible.

Can Information Overload be used as a disruptive tactic? The answer is, of course it can. As we introduce more and more information into our lives, the potential to spread misinformation and to game the systems that filter and manage that information grows exponentially.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.

On Writing a Book About Information Overload

Thursday, August 5th, 2010 by Jonathan Spira

Having written extensively about the problem of Information Overload for over 15 years, I never thought it would be difficult to write a book on the topic.

So many chapters, so little time

Little did I know…

I knew going in that I would want the book to be relatively brief, concise, and clear – I would never want to be accused of contributing to the problem by virtue of having written a book on it.

Of course, that was life p.b. – or pre-book.

Now that I am fully immersed in writing it, I have found several problems – all of which are traceable to Information Overload.

First, there’s the question of defining both information and the problem of Information Overload – easier said than done. To borrow from a comment made by Justice Potter Stewart in his opinion on the obscenity case of Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964), information is hard to define “but I know it when I see it.” The same holds true for Information Overload.

Then there’s the question of concentration. As a student of workplace productivity and interruptions, I know I must absolutely positively concentrate on one thing at a time.

Also easier said than done.

Finally, there’s what I call Shiny Object Syndrome. I think of something that would make for a fantastic chapter (the “shiny object”) – and start writing about it, neglecting all of those other half-written chapters (which themselves started as shiny objects) that are just begging for attention.

It’s time now to instill some discipline in the writing process (this is a variation on what software developers call “eating your own dogfood”). I’ve given advice to others for years. It’s time to start following it myself.

[Editor's note: Jonathan Spira's book on Information Overload is scheduled to appear in 2011 - presuming he completes it.]

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