» Archive for September, 2011

Information, Information, Everywhere… But Not A Lot Of Good It Does

Thursday, September 29th, 2011 by Jonathan Spira

But where is the RIGHT information?

This essay is being written after numerous and somewhat frustrating encounters with the latest information technology.  One would think that we’ve reached a point where systems and computers should work flawlessly but that is less and less the case every day.

On the one hand, the Information Revolution of the late 20th century has resulted in an anywhere, anytime information society that has become accustomed to boundless gobs of information on demand.

On the other hand, no one has said that the stuff works.

From a technical standpoint, the advent of true ubiquitous computing (or at least, state-of-the-art ca. 2011) has markedly changed our attitude towards and interactions with information.  Our constant exposure to information leads us to have the expectation that it will be shared across systems, accurately and quickly.  If Facebook and Google can keep track of everything we are reading, sharing, and writing while we surf the Web, surely everyone else can too, right?

Unfortunately, information does not always get to where it needs to be.  I’ll use my recent experience with an airline as an example.   Airlines are known to be leaders in IT; American Airlines introduced the first ever computer reservation system, Sabre, in 1960.  At the time it was one of the largest and most successful mainframe deployments ever.

Today, despite tremendous advances in technology over the course of 50 years, information often fails us.  Calls to customer service representatives at call centers asking the same or similar questions yield widely disparate answers, despite the fact that the agent is being guided by the system.

My own experiences in the past week relating to several different issues with an airline, including an error that was apparently computer generated as well as misinformation that was repeated by several agents almost verbatim, show me that we have a long way to go.

It won’t surprise you to learn that fixing these problems took multiple phone calls and e-mail messages and wasted hours of time both on my part and on the part of the call center agents.

We used to say that computers don’t make mistakes, but rather that the people who write the programs do.  I believe that this belief has become somewhat quaint if not obsolete.  While we are far from enjoying true artificial intelligence where machines actually think and respond on their own, we are at a point where autonomic or self-healing systems do evolve on their own, and sometimes seem to add in mistakes just to keep things interesting.

We want the right information on demand, without delay, without error.   As we add in more information, more systems, and more ways of getting information, what we end up with is something very different.


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

Send Your Robot To Work Day

Wednesday, September 21st, 2011 by Cody Burke

At your service...

Uncoupling your physical presence from your office and working remotely is no longer a pipe dream; increasingly high numbers of knowledge workers are doing it everyday.  For over a decade now, technology has allowed off site workers to access e-mail, chat via instant messaging, and attend online meetings from anywhere with an Internet connection.

But what about keeping tabs on what is happening on the factory floor, or popping into the ad hoc meetings that take place in a co-worker’s office?  For that, you need your own telepresence robot, and unfortunately they tend to be very expensive.

Your basic telepresence robot comes with a basic set of features that includes a camera, display screen, microphone, and speakers.  Prices vary widely.  The QB telepresence robot from Anybots runs $15,000 and features automatic obstacle avoidance.  A cheaper model from Vgo costs $6,000, and you can even make an appointment and test drive one in their office via their Web site.  In the pipeline, iRobot, the maker of the Roomba robot vacuum cleaners and the military PackBot, is working on Ava, a robot that uses an Android tablet as its head and brains.  For users who need to be able to move around an office or factory floor and visually see what is going on and interact with people. For users with disabilities, which prevent them from going to work or moving about the office once there, robotic telepresence may be appealing and very useful.

Not all solutions are expensive however.  This past weekend I attended Maker Faire NYC.  For the uninitiated, Maker Faire is an event sponsored by Make Magazine (a Do-It-Yourself magazine) to “celebrate arts, crafts, engineering, science projects and the DIY mindset.”  The event is a sort of high school science fair on steroids; it features exhibits, speakers, demonstrations, workshops, and showcases for new and emerging technologies.

One project presented at the event was a DIY telepresence robot dubbed MAYA (Me And You Everywhere).  Designed and built by Ben Hylak, a 14 year old student, the robot uses a Roomba as its platform and an Acer Aspire netbook running RoboRealm software for control.  Two-way audio and video communication is enabled via Skype and built-in speakers and a Webcam.  The body of the robot is an upside-down plastic trashcan (which looks surprisingly good), with a 15” LCD display mounted on top.  The robot also features object recognition that Ben programmed to identify different kinds of pills (he envisions healthcare applications), and an articulated arm with a gripping device.

The cost of Ben’s MAYA robot?  Under $500, and he is selling the kits that would allow you to make one at home if you are feeling handy and want a weekend project.  Just think, you could send your new robot to work in your stead next week.

I don’t necessarily expect any executives to take the cheap route and place bulk orders for a DIY telepresence robot made from a vacuum cleaner and a plastic trashcan.  However, as demonstrated by this motivated and obviously intelligent 14 year old, the tools for implementing robotic telepresence at a reasonable price point are out there.  Expect to see more of these kinds of robots in the near future, and don’t be surprised when you run into one at the water cooler.


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

Bow-Ties and Information Overload

Thursday, September 15th, 2011 by Cody Burke

Bow-ties: classy and helpful for understanding Information Overload

Information Overload is something that most knowledge workers understand intuitively.  We all know what it feels like to stare at an overflowing inbox not unlike a deer in headlights, or to sit at your desk wracking your brain trying to remember the location of an important bit of information.

Unfortunately, although it is easy to recall the feeling of Information Overload, visualizing and conceptualizing it is much more difficult.  We get hung up in definitions, specific technologies, and different approaches to dealing with the problem, and as a result, often fail to see what the problem looks like on a simplified, macro level.  We understand what Information Overload is, but fail to see the forest for the trees.

To help visualize the complex information flows that every knowledge worker and every organization must navigate, I often use the metaphor of a bow-tie.  This helps me to understand and conceptualize Information Overload, and it may be helpful to you as well.  To start, simply picture the shape of a bow-tie (yes, the fancy one that goes around the neck).

On the left side of the bow-tie is the complex incoming information in the form of communications, news and reports, meetings, and any other information input, no matter how small.  This flow includes sources both internal and external to the organization that are filtered down and processed in the middle of the bow-tie, the knot.  The knot is where the complex flow of information is reduced, simplified, and digested so that it can be used to produce complex outcomes on the other side of the knot.  The right side of the bow-tie is where the structured and digested information is applied to business problems and used to create profit and gain advantage.

The bow-tie is a powerful model because it allows for complex inputs to be reduced to manageable blocks that are then used to drive complex outcomes.  The problem is that the knot of the bow-tie, and by extension the organization, team, or individual knowledge worker, is vulnerable to becoming overloaded.  If the knot fails and is overwhelmed by the incoming information on the left side, then the important outcomes being produced on the right side will suffer.

For example, imagine a knowledge worker (sitting in the middle, at the knot) who is dealing with too much information in the form of extremely high numbers of search results (the incoming information on the left-hand side of the bow-tie).  The combination of his inadequate search tools and techniques leads him to becoming overwhelmed.  As a result, he is not able to find the information he is looking for, and he moves forward with his project using sub-standard information.  The project (the output on the right-hand side of the bow-tie) ends up having to be redone and reviewed many more times than necessary because of the errors.  If the problem at the knot could have been avoided, the significant time and effort that was spent fixing the errors would have been saved.

On a group level, a sales team that is receiving an overwhelming amount of e-mail will be unable to effectively process the incoming information, leading to the team missing promising sales leads.  The team’s failure to maximize the information they are receiving leads to the outputs that are produced being not up-to-par, in this case resulting in lower sales.  The problem in this case is the team’s ability to process the high volume of e-mail effectively; resolving that pain point would improve the output and drive to higher sales.

Now, I don’t expect anyone to start wearing bow-ties because of this Information Overload visualization technique (although they are very stylish and perhaps underused).  Nonetheless, applying this metaphor to areas where Information Overload is harming productivity and impacting an organization’s bottom line may help to understand the problem and focus efforts to address it.

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

Automaticity: The Impact of Distractions on Work and Driving

Wednesday, September 7th, 2011 by Jonathan Spira

Are we there yet?

The ability to do one thing on autopilot while doing something else is referred to as automaticity. While experienced drivers can hold conversations and listen to the radio while driving, novice drivers cannot. Indeed, many new drivers turn off the radio and ask passengers not to talk to them. They also don’t make phone calls or try to send text messages.

Automaticity does not mean that distractions – while driving or otherwise – do not have an impact. Brain scans by neuroscientists studying this issue have shown that the brain has difficulty paying attention to sights and sounds at the same time. If the brain is focused on a visual task, its ability to handle an auditory task decreases markedly, and vice versa.

In the course of writing my book Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization, I attempted to determine the impact of distractions and replicated an experiment that NPR had conducted a few years earlier. I played the piano.

Playing the piano involves a similar amount of hand-to-eye coordination as well as coordination between hands and feet (for pedals, in both cases). Playing the piano also has a similar amount of automaticity as driving. I have played the piano since I was five years old and I have been driving since the age of 16. Even when I am out of practice, I can still sit down and play many of the Beethoven Sonatas I memorized for performances years earlier.

Essentially, I played the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata and had a friend ask me increasingly complex questions. Being asked simple arithmetic questions threw off my tempo completely. It was impossible to play Beethoven’s intricate arpeggios and do simple arithmetic simultaneously.

Recently, I came across a video prepared by Farmers Insurance as part of its University of Farmers online efforts. Hosted by Prof. Nathaniel Burke, who is portrayed by actor J.K Simmons, the Distracted Driving video cites some statistics (distracted driving “accounts for 25% of car crashes”) and some root causes (“music, cellphones, food”). It shows a man driving while an increasing number of distractions appear, including a boom box located directly behind the driver’s head, a drink being spilled on the driver, a few people poking the driver with long sticks, and a mobile phone.

After a man wearing a Hawaiian shirt jumps into the car and starts dancing in his seat, the car (not unsurprisingly) crashes.

While most drivers don’t face this number of distractions on a regular basis, the video (which is 30 seconds in length) does an excellent job of driving home the point that, simply put, distractions distract. Given that a typical knowledge worker may be subject to almost as many distractions while at his desk as the Farmers Insurance driver faces in the video, it’s amazing we’re able to get any work done at all.