» Archive for October, 2011

Thoughts From Information Overload Awareness Day 2011

Wednesday, October 26th, 2011 by Jonathan Spira

Lower the Overload, send less e-mail

Information Overload Awareness Day (IOAD) continued the dialog I sought to begin three years ago with the first IOAD.

To be candid, for the past few months, I’ve been a bit overloaded as have my colleagues at Basex and we were considering on moving IOAD to December.

We were therefore surprised a few weeks ago when we noticed articles announcing that Information Overload Awareness Day 2011 would be on October 20 once again.  A phone conversation I had with Marsha Egan, who runs the aptly named InBoxDetox.com and has supported IOAD all three years, was enlightening to say the least.  It’s ironic, Marsha pointed out, that we are so overloaded that we couldn’t even turn off IOAD.

I had created IOAD but by year three, it had taken on a life of its own.

To “celebrate” IOAD, I asked knowledge workers around the world to send 10% fewer e-mail messages each day.  E-mail by itself is just one manifestation of Information Overload but it may well be the poster child.  I was pleased to see countless bloggers and journalists pick up the call this year and ask their readers to Lower the Overload by sending fewer electronic missives.

I’ve done a lot of speaking about Information Overload in the past few months and I just returned from Scottsdale, Arizona, where I spoke at a meeting of the Institute for Information Infrastructure Protection.  The meeting specifically addressed Cybersecurity Through A Behavioral Lens and I was asked to speak about Information Overload.

It was a gratifying talk in part because the Q&A that followed almost didn’t end (it eventually had to end because many of the participants had flown out that same day and were still on east coast time and my keynote followed the dinner hour) and in part because the attendees were some of the leading thinkers in the field.  As it turned out, the behavioral observations my colleagues and I were making about Information Overload had great applicability to cybersecurity issues and the questions and discussion largely centered on building a bridge between the two disciplines.

It turns out that even cybersecurity experts and academicians in this field are not immune to the problems of Information Overload and this group in particular related to the story told to me by Col. Peter Marksteiner of the rogue e-mail that was forwarded and forwarded until it brought down the e-mail servers at Maxwell Air Force Base – during a cybersecurity event there in June 2008.

If you haven’t yet started to Lower the Overload, you can still take stock of your own information habits and take the first step by sending fewer e-mail messages to fewer recipients.  If we all do this, it will make a difference.

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

Happy Information Overload Awareness Day

Thursday, October 20th, 2011 by Jonathan Spira

Where do I even start...

Today is the third annual Information Overload Awareness Day (some media outlets have shortened this to Information Overload Day, which in my view gives it an entirely different spin).

To “celebrate,”  we at Basex invite each and every one of you to Lower the Overload starting now.

Some may ask, why do we need an Information Overload Awareness Day?  We need it because we don’t have days that are free from the problem.  Our research shows that only 5% of the knowledge workers’ day is available for thought and reflection.  The largest single block of time in the average day (25%) is spent dealing with Information Overload-related issues, such as interruptions, excessive e-mails, and failed searches.

We need Information Overload Awareness Day because the problem is getting worse, not better.  For us to even begin to regain our lost productivity, scattered focus, and decimated work/life balance, the first thing that must happen is for every one of us to acknowledge the problem, and then take action.

We need Information Overload Awareness Day because Information Overload is dulling our senses and limiting our ability to absorb more in-depth and complex thoughts and content.

Last year, we asked all knowledge workers to attempt to send 10% fewer e-mail messages.  This year, we ask knowledge workers to reaffirm that pledge.  If you have lapsed, please try again. If you’ve succeeded, try to commit to further reducing the quantity of e-mail you send.

We’ve made great progress in raising awareness of Information Overload’s impact.  My book Overload!: How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization was published a few months ago.  It outlines the problem of Information Overload and shows us how we all can make a difference through our individual actions.

We’ve also expanded the conversation to include a variety of great thinkers and writers.  In June, in an online roundtable sponsored by the Information Overload Research Group, we brought together Dave Crenshaw (The Myth of Multitasking), Daniel Forrester (Consider), Maggie Jackson (Distracted), and William Powers (Hamlet’s BlackBerry).

Just recently, I spoke at Google’s headquarters (talk about being inside the lion’s den) to Google employees about the problem (yes, they have it there too) and I’ve been speaking at conferences and meetings almost on a weekly basis (next Tuesday, I’ll be in Philadelphia speaking at a Wharton event).

Organizations that include Google, the Churchill Club, Dow Jones, and Berkeley University invited me to speak and join in Information Overload-focused events that have helped spread the word and raise awareness like never before.

Information Overload cost theU.S.economy $997 billion in 2010 – and that figure continues to grow as we approach 2012.

Help Lower the Overload (our slogan for Information Overload Awareness Day) on Thursday and beyond. Remember, even without your knowing it, your actions impact others so do what you can. Remember, we are all in this together.

People frequently ask me if there is an easy fix for Information Overload, a corporate pill as it were.  While such a thing does not exist, I do know that simply raising awareness of the problem and its ramifications does help begin to reduce the amount of overload we face.  In addition, each of us can and should assume a bit of personal responsibility for the problem and take the appropriate steps to mitigate it.

I have.


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

October 20 is Information Overload Awareness Day – Lower the Overload

Monday, October 17th, 2011 by Jonathan Spira

Ready, set, ...

On Thursday October 20, knowledge workers around the world will mark the third annual Information Overload Awareness Day.  The theme is “Lower the Overload.”  The holiday/observance is our attempt to raise awareness of the crippling burden that Information Overload places on all of us.  Thanks to the vast amount of information that we all face on a daily basis, individual knowledge workers, teams, and entire organizations suffer diminished productivity and the loss of the ability to make sound decisions, process information, and prioritize tasks.

Information Overload Awareness Day is an opportunity for knowledge workers and organizations to take stock of the impact that this serious problem is having on their productivity and work life balance, not to mention on their organizations’ bottom line.

One thing we have discovered as we have researched Information Overload is how easy it is to take steps to lessen its impact by simply raising awareness of the problem.  Information Overload Awareness Day is in part a day to step back and contemplate how our individual actions contribute to the problem.

On Thursday, we will ask everyone to start by sending 10% fewer e-mail messages (this includes copying fewer people on the e-mail you do send).

Two simple statistics from my book Overload! how Too Much Information Is Hazadous To Your Organization explain why this is important:

- Reading and processing just 100 e-mail messages can occupy over half of a worker’s day.

- For every 100 people who are unnecessarily copied on an e-mail, eight hours are lost.

In addition, look at how you use and share information and you may see opportunities to make processes more efficient as well as take action to improve your own information habits, such as in the area of search.

Information Overload cost the U.S.economy $997 billion in 2010 – and that figure will increase for 2011.

Help Lower the Overload (our slogan for Information Overload Awareness Day) on Thursday and beyond.   Remember, even without your knowing it, your actions impact others so do what you can.  Remember, we are all in this together.

Ask and you shall receive

Thursday, October 13th, 2011 by Cody Burke

At your service.

Although Apple’s keynote presentation last week left many underwhelmed (no iPhone 5), there was one bright spot for knowledge workers: Siri.  The new feature is a voice activated virtual assistant that allows users to use voice commands to control functions on the iPhone such as speech-to-text, calendaring, and calling.  More significantly, Siri features natural language processing that enables users to make queries and searches and receive answers.

Search as we know it is significantly limited by its design.  Typical searches return correct result sets, meaning a list of sources that meets the search criteria.  Unfortunately, searches typically don’t return correct answers; you must do that part of the work yourself by combing through the result set.  Not only is this time consuming, but the process of sorting through the search results opens up the possibility of ending up in selecting and using the wrong information.

During Apple’s announcement, the company showed a demo video of Siri that included a woman asking her iPhone “Is it going to be chilly inSan Franciscothis weekend?” Siri responded “Not too cold, maybe down to 61 degrees.”  She asked a question, and got an answer.  Typically, she would have accessed Google on her smartphone or PC and typed “San Franciscoweather.”  She would have been rewarded with links to weather sites, as well as a relatively handy weather forecast image at the top of the results page.  She would have gotten the information she needed, but not in the same way.  A traditional search for the information would have returned correct results, but not the specific answer to her real question.

Voice activated commands are nothing new, and Siri’s original iPhone app has been around since February 2010.  Apple acquired the company in April of 2010, and has given the underlying virtual assistant technology the Apple design treatment, tightly integrating it into all areas of the iPhone 4S.  Siri is activated by holding down the home button, and then asking a question or giving a voice command.  Siri will ask clarification questions if needed until it has the information it requires for the task.  For fact checking, Siri leverages connections to sources such as Wikipedia and Wolfram Alpha.

Siri has roots in cognitive software with artificial intelligence incorporated into its code, which was originally developed by the Stanford Research Institute in conjunction with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).  Originally dubbed CALO (Cognitive Agent that Learns and Organizes), the project’s goal was to develop software for interrelated decision-making tasks that had previously been resistant to automation.  To succeed, the cognitive software needed to learn from experience, take orders, explain its own actions, and respond to unexpected input.

Despite its serious sounding roots, Siri on the iPhone 4S seems destined to be used for finding restaurants, booking movie tickets, and voice automation tasks such as speech-to-text and controlling phone functions.  However, the potential of the tool to revolutionize how we think about search is tremendous.  Apple has thrown its weight behind the virtual assistant concept and, if the company’s past successes are any indication, there is a good chance that others will follow.  Existing companies in the space, such as Nuance, could also find increased interest in their offerings.

Improving the search experience for knowledge workers and consumers is sorely needed, and with Apple’s considerable backing, Siri just might be the first step in a larger evolution of search that emphasizes correct answers over correct results.

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

Rethinking What Works Better When For the Twenty-First Century

Thursday, October 6th, 2011 by Jonathan Spira

Yes or no....

Ten years ago, I first wrote what I now refer to as “What Works Better When” a look at the practical and social implications of when one should use the telephone, instant messaging and, more recently, such tools as text messaging and social software.

When I first wrote this, we had three choices, namely the telephone, instant messaging, and in person contact.

I didn’t anticipate how many choices there would be ten years later – and the number of choices brings in a new question, the personal preference of the recipient.

Without rehashing the entire piece, which I updated in my new book, Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization, I’ve observed some trends in how people use these various tools that make this revisit necessary.

I got to this point when several of my phone calls were criticized for, well, being phone calls.  “It’s better to text me” I was chided by a friend after calling to say I wanted to grab a coffee with him while I was in his neighborhood.  “I don’t always look to see who’s calling but I almost always look at my new text messages” he helpfully explained.

The fact is that I do text, but I never associated immediacy with texting.  That was perhaps one of the underlying tenets of What Works Better When in fact, namely that when an immediate response is required, phone calls and instant messages are the obvious choices.

Therein lies the rub.  The mail-order business used to say “One person’s junk mail is another person’s L.L. Bean catalog” and the same holds true today for the variety of tools we have for reaching people.

The problem is that it’s up to the sender (in this case, me) to keep up with all of these individual preferences.

Do I text Mark before calling?

Do I simply leave Paula a voicemail, knowing she always calls back quickly?

Do I reach out to Hans-Peter via Facebook to set up a time to chat?

Do I simply just dial someone if I need to get them?

If I do e-mail someone before calling, which e-mail do I use (while I still advocate the use of one e-mail address and inbox, the majority of knowledge workers seem to have several and they are not tied together)?

One physician I go to likes to communicate with patients via text message – and she’s very good about it.  But my phone’s battery unexpectedly ran out and I didn’t see a text that my appointment had moved.  I showed up an hour early as a result but clearly it wasn’t the end of the world.

I’ve texted people when I was running late (and in some cases couldn’t actually call) and my assumption that they actually read the texts resulted in a certain amount of confusion about whether I was showing up at all.  Furthermore, had I called, assuming the person answered, I would have known with certainty that the person got the message.  Not so with texting, you simply have to trust that the message was received and read.

I’ve called in similar circumstances, and left voicemail, only to find out that the other party never was notified (or so he claims) of the voicemail.


In the end, I think technology may have obsoleted my What Works Better When soliloquy.  In today’s increasingly frantic communications environment, it all comes down to personal preference – and that means you only have to keep track of the personal preferences of 300 or so of your closest friends, colleagues, and acquaintances.


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