» Archive for May, 2011

Replying To All

Thursday, May 26th, 2011 by Jonathan Spira

The problem that occurs when knowledge workers click the “reply to all” button entered the big leagues earlier this year when a Bridgestone commercial during the Superbowl showed a person freaking out when a co-worker told him he hit reply to all.

Sorry, everyone, I didn't mean to hit reply to all on my typewriter

In my new book, Overload! How Too Much Information is Hazardous To Your Organization, I discuss the reaction to one company’s attempt to rein in the problem.  Nielsen, a global concern whose businesses range from television and other media measurement to business publications, told its employees that the company would eliminate reply to all functionality in their company’s e-mail client.

The truth is that Nielsen didn’t eliminate the functionality, just the button, so workarounds were easy and people continued to use reply to all.

The overuse of the reply to all function in e-mail is, without question, a huge source of e-mail overload in almost every organization.  But there are still many instances where its use is not only warranted but helpful, including e-mail messages where only a few people are copied and a reply to all is warranted.

As I note in the book, Nathan Zeldes, president of IORG and former director of information overload reduction strategies at Intel, had a far more prosaic recommendation for Nielsen and others: move the position of reply to all on the toolbar away from the reply button, making people less likely to click it inadvertently.  My advice is along similar lines: I would have recommended that Nielsen modify the e-mail client to notify the sender if he were about to send to more than five people and ask if he wished to continue.

Replying to all can in fact endanger national security.  Another scenario I present in the book was told to me by Col. Peter Marksteiner of the United States Air Force.  During the Air Force Cyber Symposium at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama in July 2008, where several hundred experts including ranking military officers were focusing on the threat hackers and terrorists in far-off lands such as China and Russia might pose.  A somewhat unsophisticated e-mail user forwarded a note about what the sender referred to as “the funnest (sic) card/dice game” to multiple respondents.  The message ended up being sent to two fairly large e-mail group lists and the ensuing barrage of “take me off your list” replies – with many users hitting reply to all – shut down the e-mail server supporting two bases, including the one that was hosting the cyber conference.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex and author of Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization


Your Information Overload Stories

Thursday, May 19th, 2011 by Cody Burke

In conjunction with the publication of Overload!, Jonathan Spira’s new book on Information Overload, he will also be launching Overload Stories.  By providing a space to share stories, experiences, and coping strategies that knowledge workers have developed, it will expand upon and continue the mission of raising awareness of Information Overload.

Even though the site is currently in beta, we have already received many insightful and illuminating stories, and thought we would share two excerpts with our readers as a preview of what Overload Stories will offer.  The full stories can be viewed at www.overloadstories.com.

From Sue Gladen, Writer

“I’m a writer, and a distracted one, so the internet is a problem.  Especially because the internet lives right in the same box that I rely on to do my writing.  It is a feng shui problem.  There is no way to separate the tool that I use to write from the tool that I use to access the world wide web, and the lack of division in the tool muddies the task at hand.

The closest physical example I can think of is the similarity of garden tools to kitchen tools.  You wouldn’t store a garden spade in your silverware drawer, would you?  They are essentially the same materials, with similar shapes and functions.  Still, the mere proximity of the garden tool that has been out there digging through the dirt would make the kitchen utensils seem unfit for cooking.  They don’t go in the same drawer.  In most houses, they don’t even go in the same room!”

From Stephen Lefebvre, a senior manager at an energy company

“It was not until I turned everything back on that I realized how big a problem I had.  A few years ago I found myself struggling to make time to prepare some end-of-year performance reviews.  As the deadline loomed I did something drastic, something I had not done in some time, I shut it all off; the Blackberry, the e-mail client, the news feeds, the instant messenger, I put the phone on do-not-disturb, I closed my office door.

The first half hour was agony.  Although I refused to let myself start MSOutlook, the urge to clear a few e-mails was surprisingly strong.  I thrashed to stay focused on the task at hand, and found myself agitated at being disconnected.  Then something magic happened – I looked up and 2 hours had sped by.  I had given my full attention to one important assignment.  That was the day I realized the toll that information overload had taken on my performance.  That was the day that I started to view information-overload as an addiction.”

If you would like to contribute your story in advance of the book’s publication and launch of the Web site, please e-mail it to us at stories@basex.com.  We are looking for two- to three-paragraph stories about how Information Overload has impacted you and/or your organization and what you are doing to combat the problem.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.

Microsoft and Skype: The Twenty-First Century Phone Company

Tuesday, May 10th, 2011 by Jonathan Spira

This morning Microsoft announced plans to acquire Skype for $8.5 billion, roughly the amount Verizon paid to acquire MCI back in 2005.

Home at last?

This is Microsoft’s largest acquisition to date.  Skype, as many will recall, was also acquired in 2005, in a transaction that left many mystified.  The purchaser was eBay and almost everyone wondered out loud as to what plans eBay had for the company since the Skype business model didn’t seem to fit eBay’s.  The purchase price in 2005 was $2.6 billion.

EBay partially divested itself of Skype in 2009, selling off 65% of the company to an investor group for $1.9 billion amidst some degree of controvery relating to Skype’s founders and patents.  EBay did do one thing right, however: it pretty much left Skype alone to innovate and grow, and this hands-off approach made Skype a valuable asset (eBay will walk away from this deal with several billion at the closing).

Today’s transaction is what should have happened back in 2005, namely that Skype will be acquired by a tech company with significant collaboration and communications offerings.  Skype will become a separate business unit within Microsoft and the first wave of Skype integration will be with a mixture of enterprise tools such as Lync and Outlook as well as consumer tools such as Hotmail, Messenger, and Xbox Live.

By acquiring Skype, Microsoft deprived Facebook and Google from either acquiring the company and, absent such a deal, possibly integrating Skype’s technology deeper into their own respective platforms.  Skype’s CEO Tony Bates noted at the press conference that 40% of current Skype traffic is video and Skype’s prowess in this area could bring more video into the office environment with Microsoft at the helm.  He also commented on Skype’s relative ubiquity, noting the use of Skype as a “verb” (as in to Skype someone).

The acquisition will give Skype sorely needed credibility in the enterprise space where, despite the fact that it’s used by many knowledge workers, it is not viewed as an enterprise-class tool.

What Microsoft gets is a twenty-first century telephone company, a company that in 2009 accounted for 12% of the world’s international calling minutes.  What the company now needs is the vision to leverage Skype so that the service works in concert with other consumer and enterprise tools.  Skype has always been the kind of application that works well in standalone mode but some work will be required to integrate it into other environments.

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

Taming Information Overload by Opting Out

Thursday, May 5th, 2011 by Cody Burke

In the last 25 years, thanks to technological developments and the introduction of the 24-hour news cycle, the level of news that we are exposed to has risen dramatically.

Where exactly is the "opt out" button?

Today we have a plethora of options for keeping up with current events, with even old standards such as television, radio, and newspapers updated for the digital age and turned into nearly always accessible Internet offerings.  Add to this mix 24-hour cable news, citizen blogger/journalists, Twitter, news aggregation Web sites, etc., and the sheer quantity of available news for consumption quickly becomes overwhelming.  All of this information adds to the tidal wave of Information Overload, which lowers comprehension levels and impacts our ability to be productive.

The prevailing theory, as told to us by news organizations among others, is that the more we know, the better informed we are, and the better our decision making will be.

Rolf Dobelli, a Swiss novelist, has a dramatically different view on this.  He believes that news is extremely damaging to us on multiple levels, ranging from our ability to understand complex arguments all the way through to our health.  In a white paper entitled Avoid News: Towards a Healthy News Diet, Dobelli lays out his case for giving up on the news completely as a way to tame Information Overload.  His method may seem extreme to some, but his argument is persuasive, if maybe a bit naïve.

The premise of his argument is that news systematically misleads us, limits true understanding, is largely irrelevant, increases cognitive errors, is manipulative, and is often simply incorrect.  The reasons for this all stem from the very nature of news as ephemeral and inherently flawed as a reliable information source.  The business model of news favors the new over the relevant because that is what sells papers and attracts listeners and viewers, not because it is the best way to deliver detailed analysis and deep, thought out arguments.

Dobelli also points out that news is costly, both in terms of time spent consuming and in the recovery time it takes to refocus after being exposed to news.  Further, it is likely that an individual will devote at lease some time, at a later date, thinking about some news item that is in all likelihood extremely irrelevant, breaking concentration once again.

Much in the same way that we now know that multitasking is damaging, Dobelli notes that “[T]he more news we consume, the more we exercise the neural circuits devoted to skimming and multitasking while ignoring those used for reading deeply and thinking with profound focus.”

Dobelli builds a strong argument for giving up on news completely.  He advocates relying on truly important news being filtered through friends and family whose judgment you trust and who know your interests.  The other way that he recommends getting information is reading in-depth articles in respected journals, and reading books.  By doing this, it is possible to avoid the many errors that are inadvertently inserted in a news story as it is breaking, and give the author or investigate journalist time to do proper research and place the news into context, where it is infinitely more valuable to building a real understanding of events.

As convincing as as Dobelli’s argument may be, the question remains: how realistic is it to follow this cold turkey approach?  In many industries one is expected to be on top of the news and act accordingly, despite the obvious downside to acting without proper reflection and in-depth research.  So, an open question to readers, would you be able to cut out the news and do your job?  Or is it an unrealistic goal, despite the benefits such an information diet might bring you?

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.