» Archive for June, 2011

Information Overload: 5 Authors’ Points-of-View

Thursday, June 30th, 2011 by Cody Burke

What channel is it on?

On Monday, the Information Overload Research Group (IORG) hosted a virtual literary salon on the topic of Information Overload entitled “Five Authors, Five Books, A Dialogue on Information Overload.” The event featured authors who have written recent books related to the subject of Information Overload. They were asked to discuss why they wrote their books, and what issues they feel are most relevant today.

Dave Crenshaw, author of The Myth of Multitasking, spoke about the problem of switch tasking, which describes what happens when people switch back and forth rapidly between tasks, lowering their productivity. Crenshaw suggested several strategies for dealing with Information Overload, including setting definite start and end times for work in order to increase the productivity of work-designated times, learning to say no to new projects, and avoiding the “Double Q” (just one quick question). The Double Q is particularly vexing as those kinds of questions cause multiple small interruptions. The best way to deal with the problem is to group all the little question into a single one-to-one meeting, avoiding the steady stream of small interruptions.

Daniel Forrester, author of Consider, mentioned that he was motivated to write his book in part by reading about how Bill Gates would schedule “Think Weeks” for thought and reflection twice a year. At the time, he was also questioning how multitasking was affecting his own life and reading research that proved that multitasking was largely impossible. Forrester went on to outline how he began looking at information-related military issues in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the leadership style of different leaders such as David Petraeus and Colin Powell. He noted that we are still not spending enough time thinking and reflecting, saying that he believes the most successful companies and individuals will be those who engage in what he called “group reflection” as opposed to group think.

Next, Maggie Jackson, author of Distracted, outlined her argument that we risk heading into a Dark Age due to our lack of deep thinking, excessive work/life balance degradation, and a drop in listening skills. She outlined the three types of attention, namely focus, awareness, and executive attention, and how people can be trained either to be distracted or to be focused. She finished with a call to action to question our assumptions and values about how we think about attention, with a shift back to emphasizing focused thought and setting up our environments to support deep thought and reflection.

William Powers, author of Hamlet’s BlackBerry, spoke about his realization of how the medium through which we consume information, namely screens, shapes our lives. Prior to writing his book, he had begun to notice that it became difficult to get through more than a few pages in a good novel before feeling the urge to look at a screen. Powers discussed how he went back to historical moments when humans faced technological challenges, and found practical examples of people dealing with information consumption and striking healthy balances in their lives. He concluded that we all have to realize the benefits of finding a healthy balance and setting limits on information consumption.

To finish the discussion, Jonathan Spira, author of Overload!, discussed the evolution of his research into Information Overload over the last 20 years. His starting point emerged from his observations of the problems that occur when knowledge workers share information and collaborate, almost all of them Information Overload-related. This led him on a 20-year journey to address these issues and help people deal with the problem. He outlined the phenomenon of recovery time, which is the time it takes a knowledge worker to return to the task at hand after an interruption (five to ten times the length of the interruption itself). Jonathan also shared some statistics on how widespread the problem is: for example, 94% of knowledge workers have felt overwhelmedto the point of incapacitation by the amount of information they encounter on a daily basis. His parting thought was that we can all do something about Information Overload by taking personal responsibility for the problem and taking action in whatever ways we can, such as by sending clearer e-mail, or by valuing our colleagues’ time as if it were our own.

Jonathan, who was also serving as moderator, ended the event three minutes early and told attendees that he was hereby returning three additional minutes to them for the purpose of thought and reflection.

The entire event, including a question and answer session, can be heard in its entirety here.

This Analyst Opinion is also available online at

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex. He can be reached at cburke@basex.com

Information Literacy On Campus

Thursday, June 23rd, 2011 by Ben Rossi

Finding information is a critical component of knowledge work, and occupies a significant amount of a knowledge worker’s time. We know from research conducted by Basex in 2010 that knowledge workers spend 10% of their workday researching and searching for information. The skills to conduct effective research are not inborn; they are learned, frequently in the course of higher education.

For students, doing research is the bread and butter of their academic life. Conducting research doesn’t just mean searching for information effectively; it means being able to judge the reliability of sources, place information within various contexts, and synthesize different information sources while developing one’s thesis. Encompassing a wide variety of competencies, research is one of the most important skills that students learn in preparation for participation in the knowledge economy.

Increasingly, however, students find that the overwhelming abundance of easily accessible but undifferentiated information on the Web hinders their ability to do the kind of deep, exploratory research that broadens their education and hones critical thinking.

Some professors seem to believe that the problems of Internet-based research begin and end with Wikipedia. In 2007, Inside Higher Ed reported that the Middlebury history department was banning Wikipedia citations in research papers and exams. It is now commonplace for professors to discourage and even penalize citing Wikipedia, although studies have suggested that students continue to use it for certain purposes.

Since 2008, a number of key studies by Professors Alison J. Head and Michael B. Eisenberg of the University of Washington’s Information School show that simple no-Wikipedia policies fail to address the underlying issues. Indeed, their studies, which have surveyed some 10,000 students in campuses across the country, prove that most students understand the inherent limitations of Wikipedia and tend to only use it for “presearch,” early topic-shaping and context-gathering work.

Nevertheless, a study of 8,353 students at 25 U.S. colleges and universities conducted last spring revealed that “students find research daunting. They often drown in copious and irrelevant data.” According to the study, most students report finding it very difficult to begin a research project and determine the scope of what is expected of them. This isn’t due to a lack of ideas or motivation; rather, students’ uncertainty about doing research hampers them from choosing and narrowing down a topic that they can adequately research given the constraints of time, grades, and Information Overload.

An overwhelming majority of students have responded by adopting risk averse, consistent information-gathering strategies that only utilize a very limited toolbox—typically course readings, Google, Wikipedia, instructors, and library databases—no matter what the research topic. Strikingly, while most students use some library resources, very few avail themselves of resources that require interaction with actual librarians. As Purdue University’s Sharon Weiner wrote in Educause Quarterly last year, the UWash studies show that “many students view their educational experience as one of ‘satisficing,’ finding just enough information that is ‘good enough’ to complete course assignments.”

Concern about information literacy on campus has reached beyond this relatively small group of librarians and academics. In 2009, President Obama issued a statement declaring October 2009 National Information Literacy Month. The official document suggests that in addition to basic reading, writing, and arithmetic, students must learn information literacy—defined as the ability to acquire, collate, and evaluate information—as a distinct but equally important skill.

There’s a growing realization, it seems, that to use all the information at their fingertips, students need instruction from experts in information science. The question going forward is how that instruction will be integrated into the college curriculum.

Benjamin Rossi is an analyst at Basex.

E-mail Overload 101

Thursday, June 16th, 2011 by Jonathan Spira

Information Overload isn’t just a scourge for the business sector.

But what would Ben Franklin do?

Its effects can also be felt in academia, where both students and professors struggle to manage a rising tide of information.  While this problem has many facets, in this article I will focus on Information Overload as it manifests itself in the relationship between students and teachers.

E-mail has become ubiquitous on college campuses, and some of the effects of its widespread use are surprising.  It is now, for better or worse, many students’ preferred form of communication with professors.  On the one hand, this gives some students an opportunity to communicate with professors when they otherwise wouldn’t have done so, either because the student can’t meet with the teacher during office hours or, perhaps, because he or she is too intimidated to ask the professor in person.

On the other hand, just as in the business world, students are much more likely to send e-mail without thinking about its clarity, the appropriateness of its content, or its importance.  The result, for many professors, is a veritable e-mail avalanche.  The barrage reaches a crescendo around finals week, when many students drop drafts of papers into a teacher’s inbox all at the same time and expect a quick turnaround, not taking into consideration that they and their peers have likely overloaded the professor to the point of incapacitation.

The problem got so bad by 2006, the year I entered college, that the New York Times took notice of it in “To: Professor@University.edu Subject: Why It’s All About Me.”  Jonathan Glater wrote in that piece about professors who receive e-mail that is inappropriate, irrelevant, or rude.  Many professors reported being asked for information that was already in the syllabus, or receiving emotional tirades about test scores.  A later Inside Higher Ed article quoted a professor who receives over 100 e-mail messages a day, many from students.  Some professors have formulated rules of “netiquette” to discourage students from sending so much e-mail.

Even when their e-mail is perfectly appropriate, students expect that professors will answer promptly, but this rarely happens.  I confess that as a student, the promptness of a professor’s e-mail response did influence my opinion of him or her to a small degree.  As Glater reported, student e-mail (and the expectations that underlie it) can put tremendous pressure on junior faculty who know that their tenure prospects rest in part on student evaluations, which are much more widespread today than they were even a few years ago.

But for many students, the opinion of Athan Papailiou, a student quoted in the Inside Higher Ed article, is representative.  He said that he “understands the frustration of reading endless e-mails, but answering questions is an integral part of teaching.”  This was certainly my thought until I spoke to my father, who happens to be a professor.  He wondered why I felt professors had an obligation to even answer all of my e-mail, much less do so promptly.  I was (momentarily) speechless; the expectation was so deeply ingrained that it had never been called before the tribunal of my conscience.  It was an eye-opener.

After I complete my graduate studies, I will be on the other side of the divide between student and professor.  Just as my former instructors, I will likely face an overloaded inbox and expectant e-mail correspondents.  I can only hope that those waiting for e-mail replies from me will take a moment, as we all should, and consider how we all suffer from Information Overload.

Benjamin Rossi is an analyst at Basex.

Can You Hear Me Now?

Thursday, June 9th, 2011 by Jonathan Spira

Much of the time, we look at distractions and interruptions in the workplace and think “e-mail” or “instant message.”

What did you say again?

However, an often overlooked source of distractions is the issue of audio quality during phone conversations. Some level of interference is usually a given on a phone call, but these small interruptions and distractions can, and do, add up.

On a one-on-one phone call, a bad connection can often be fixed in a time-tested manner, (hang up and try again, hoping for a better connection), however, those suffering on a conference call can’t solve the problem as easily.

On a group call, a variety of problems may present themselves. Many stem from poor caller etiquette. Examples include not using mute when coughing or using a speakerphone with high background noise. Other problems depend on the type of phone being used. Mobile phones are frequently (but not always) less clear compared to a landline phone, and everyone is familiar with the robot-like voice distortion that occurs when a VoIP connection slows down.

While knowledge workers are becoming increasingly reliant on advanced communications tools, verbal communication remains the motor of the knowledge economy in many respects.

In today’s global economy, given the vast distances that separate many knowledge workers, such verbal interactions more often than not occur via the telephone.

The upside of this is that knowledge workers from all over the world can join in a conference call without having to travel from their respective offices. The downside however, is that the subtle non-verbal cues that we rely on for effective communication are lost. Physical gestures, facial expressions, eye movements, and many other non-verbal actions reinforce, emphasize, and even contradict what a speaker is saying. These vital clues that set context and provide a wealth of supplemental information to the listener are missing from a telephone conversation.

Because of the loss of these important aspects of the verbal interaction, the remaining information, conveyed by voice, is all the more critical. As a result, any disruption to the audio quality of a call can have a significant impact on the participants. Missed information can lead to costly errors, muddled responses to questions require time-consuming repetition and clarification, and a static-filled connection results in frustration and stress for call participants as they strain to follow the conversation.

What are your experiences and thoughts on this issue? Post your comments and thoughts here.

–Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex and author of Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization. Cody Burke, a senior analyst at Basex , contributed to this article.

Reading The News: The Future Of The Newspaper

Thursday, June 2nd, 2011 by Jonathan Spira

In Overload!, I examine how my newspaper reading habits have changed over the past decade.

Is this the Gazette's complete iPad edition?

The first real newspaper (Relation aller Fürnemmen und gedenckwürdigen Historien) was published in 1605 in Strasbourg, France, and, until recently, the primary means of conveying news to the world was indeed the newspaper.

Newspapers hit the Web in earnest in the 1990s but they were in many respects limited by the limitations of the Web browser in terms of formatting and that one had to be sitting in front of a computer to read them.

With the advent of the Kindle eBook reader and Apple iPad, how we get our newspaper has started to change.

I’ll focus first on the iPad experience since I’ve had the opportunity to study this in greater depth.

A daily newspaper or two for me was a daily habit since grammar school. Until recently, I always had both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal delivered to my front door. I first stopped the New York Times a little less than three years ago. I didn’t do it lightly, indeed I reasoned (with myself) that I was saving paper as most of the newspaper was going “unread” because the articles I was interested in I had already accessed online.

In designing their respective iPad interfaces, both the New York Times and Wall Street Journal started with a tabula rasa. The Wall Street Journal chose to go with iPad conventions in terms of the use of gestures. As a result, the experience the reader gets isn’t simply replicating the look and feel of the print paper, but in my opinion the interface is actually an improvement.

A Journal reader on the iPad can get the day’s paper or the most up-to-date news and swipe from article to article. The look and feel resembles the print edition but the images are far superior. Thanks to its intelligent use of gestures and scrolling, I find reading the Journal on the iPad more enjoyable and far more informative than reading the paper version. I can swipe between articles and sections. I also can close the article and return to the both front page of the “paper” or of each section by pinching the screen. And finally, I can also switch to the European or Asian edition with two taps, a feat that is not possible with the paper version.

On the other hand, I find that reading New York Times via its iPad app is an exercise in frustration thanks to a poor user interface that leaves me constantly wishing I had the actual paper in front of me. Ironically, one of the people sharing the stage with Steve Jobs at the launch of the iPad was Martin Nisenholtz, the head of the Times’ digital business unit. Nisenholtz even demoed an early version of the Times’ iPad app at the launch but the proof is in the pudding, so to speak. Unfortunately, the Times’ app was more hype than substance.

Apple iPad users have given the Times’ app three out of five stars and more people (45.3%) gave it one star – “hated it” than any other. (This is a good rating compared to the Times’ iPhone app, which only garnered two stars. 65.3% of users who rated it gave it one star.)

Users of the Wall Street Journal app have given it a five-star rating (“it’s great”) and 65.4% users gave it five stars.

Apparently, the Times is having trouble abiding by its motto “All the news that’s fit to print” when it comes to the iPad. Not only does it seem as if a lot of news is missing in the iPad edition, but it’s not possible to go back to past editions (unlike the Wall Street Journal, which allows the reader to go back seven days).

A few days ago, the Times released version 2.0.7, which introduced article-to-article swipe. This is a small improvement although navigation is hindered since there is still no “main” page. What the Times considers to be the main page is what the editors have determined to be “Top News” stories. Today, there were 11. It’s also not possible to swipe from section to section (e.g. from Business Day to Technology). Switching sections requires clicking on the menu bar and then making a selection.

A significant problem with both apps is that, unlike on the Web, there is no search function, making it virtually impossible to find something one is looking for (of course, print newspapers lack search functionality as well but the newspapers’ Web sites do incorporate it, although these implementations are far from perfect).

The newfound popularity of tablet computers could mean a renaissance for newspapers – if the newspapers seize the opportunity and provide functionality that exceeds both the paper and Web experiences. Until that happens, however, you’ll find me bypassing the New York Times in favor of newspapers that see fit to print all the news with an app to match.

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


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