» Archive for May, 2012

Better Innovation Through Chemistry?

Friday, May 25th, 2012 by Cody Burke

Prime your mind to see the future

Innovating is hard work. Even just solving day-to-day problems can often be a challenge, particularly when the tasks are complex and time sensitive, or have multiple uncertainties.

To be at our mental best requires multiple factors to come together at just the right time. Just enough sleep, but not too much. Just the right amount of stress to push us, but not to overwhelm us. A quiet work space, but maybe a slight bit of background noise to drown out other distractions. The list goes on and on, and I think we all can agree that when we are faced with a challenging problem, we do not often have the luxury of saying, “Wait, I need to go take a nap, chill out a bit, and get my mind in order.” We live and work in an on-demand, 24/7 state of connectivity and interaction.

At a workshop I attended, hosted by IEA (Idea Engineering Agency), co-founder Araceli Camargo-Kilpatrick presented her research and methods for encouraging innovation. Camargo-Kilpatrick’s approach is via neuroscience, and is heavily rooted in understanding the balance of chemicals in the brain and the impact they have on our mental capabilities.

The premise is not complicated: essentially our most powerful problem solving mechanisms are hidden away in our subconscious, working behind the scenes at their own pace and beyond our direct control. The trick is to understand how to prime one’s mind on a chemical level to increase dopamine (provides feelings of reward and motivation) and oxytocin (lowers stress levels). The theory is that by doing this our brain is more able to relax and tap into its powerful problem solving capabilities. Methods to prime the brain include exercise, music, visualization, and, perhaps most intriguing to me, breaking old patterns and establishing new routines before starting new projects.

Assuming the mind is primed, Camargo-Kilpatrick breaks down innovation into a series of steps, although she cautions that innovation is not a point A to point B process, but more of a spiral of problem solving, adjusting, and questioning. The first step is to explore the environment of the problem being solved. By understanding all the possible factors and the lay of the land, we mentally relax because we have prepared ourselves and will not be surprised by unexpected influences. For example, if the problem is to try to limit distractions in the workplace, then it is necessary to understand every possible distraction, as well as the day-to-day activities and habits of the workers.

The next step is observation, simply asking good questions. Forming a hypothesis or trying to answer the questions at this stage is discouraged, as the questions, at least in the beginning, are likely to be very general and not very helpful. By refining the questions, the problem will become clearer. This leads into Camargo-Kilpatrick’s next two stages, which are to first clearly define the real problem, and then define the parameters. In our example, the real problem may be the incorrect use of tools such as e-mail and instant messenger, and the parameters may be “when doing focused work on a project.” Being open to modifying the problem is critical, as assumptions must be questioned at every step of the process.

After defining the problem and the parameters, the next phase is to analyze the impact of every factor. Understanding the impact of e-mail on distractions, as well as its impact on other areas of work aids in building a model of the environment, which helps to foresee any ripple effects from making changes. For example, if e-mail is only checked twice a day, that would limit time spent in the inbox, but it may lead to an increase in instant messaging, which would in itself be a distraction. Camargo-Kilpatrick represents innovation and problem solving as the equation Y=F(x). The problem being solved is Y, and x is any factor. Thus distractions are a function of e-mail, but they are also a function of instant messenger, phone calls, etc. Only by looking at the whole picture can the problem be effectively addressed.

The combination of putting oneself into the proper frame of mind and using a methodical system to solve problems is not a new or groundbreaking concept. However, the work that Camargo-Kilpatrick is doing by applying neuroscience to find ways to jumpstart innovation is. We have so much knowledge about the world yet seem to understand so little about how we function; this is welcome research and innovation in its own right.

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

In the Knowledge Economy, E-mail Continues to Be Front and Center

Friday, May 18th, 2012 by Cody Burke

Up, up, and away?

Just this morning I had a conversation with an executive at a major U.S. bank. She was deploring the fact that all employees had been told that their e-mail databases would be limited to the past six months of messages and that they could go through the older e-mail messages and save specific ones to files if they so desired.

I first wrote about Deleting E-mail, Deleting Knowledge over ten years ago, bemoaning the existence of arbitrary e-mail policies while emphasizing the need to make the knowledge contained in e-mail messages more available, not less.

Clearly, a decade later, some haven’t gotten the message. Frankly, I’m not sure why. Hard drives are bigger, storage is cheaper by several orders of magnitude, and we are using e-mail more than ever as a means of creating, distributing, and storing information.

Combine this with another e-mail problem: non-delivery of e-mail. I’m not talking about an outright delivery failure where the sender is notified. I’m referring to e-mail messages that just disappear.

Recently I had this happen twice, when I dispatched e-mail to colleagues and awaited a reply. From one, I received a phone call and from the other, an e-mail, both plaintively asking when I was going to send my e-mail.

In both cases, I sent a few test e-mail messages and none was received.

I referred both to their respective IT departments and, voilà, the problem was fixed.

In Fixing E-mail, I wrote about the problem that users face after sending an e-mail, namely that it is not really possible to track when the sender does not get a reply from the recipient. When I wrote this, I didn’t contemplate a situation where the e-mail simply disappeared into the ether. But, as I’ve discovered, not getting a reply to an e-mail can indeed be indicative of the fact that the e-mail never reached the intended recipient in the first place.

This is where it gets tricky. We can’t ask each recipient to confirm receipt of a message, nor can we call each recipient and say, “Hey, did you just get my e-mail?”. Knowledge workers are already busy with the e-mail already in their inbox (at the rate of 93 e-mail messages per day, which is what the average knowledge worker receives, this is over 22,000 e-mail messages a year and that number is growing).

So what do I see as potential solutions? On the deletion front, recognizing the value of the knowledge stored in older e-mail by changing policies would be a good first step. On the problem of disappearing e-mail as well as tracking whether a reply to a particular e-mail has been forthcoming, hopefully someone reading this can come up with a tool that will help resolve the issue.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex. He can be reached at jspira@basex.com

Information Overload: Do As I Say, Not As I Do?

Friday, May 11th, 2012 by Jonathan Spira

Too much e-mail or just enough?

“I don’t really spend that much time on e-mail…” “E-mail sometimes overwhelms my day.”

These two perspectives sound as if they represent two polar extremes in the knowledge workforce, but they actually are coming from the same people.

In a series of surveys and interviews by Basex, over the past year, we found some interesting trends in how knowledge workers are impacted by Information Overload, and what they are doing about it.

But we also found that what the survey respondents tell us in surveys is directly contradicted by what the same people tell us in telephone interviews.

After conducting a series of surveys that reached a total of 1000 knowledge workers at a large North American company, we would like to share with you some initial analysis, as well as out thoughts on some contradictory data we received.

From our surveys, we found that knowledge workers at the company were spending a relatively low amount of time reading, writing, and managing e-mail messages. Specifically, around 50% spent 15-30 minutes reading e-mail and 15-30 minutes writing e-mail. Around 65% also spent 15-30 minutes managing their inboxes. We took the low numbers to be a positive sign in that it didn’t indicate an e-mail-obsessed work culture. Additionally, when specifically asked about sources of Information Overload, very low numbers of respondents felt e-mail was a significant problem.

Surveys are typically one of several parts of our research process, in this case the second part. It was when we got to the third part, one-on-one interviews, that alarm bells started sounding.

Interviewees consistently reported rampant overuse of e-mail in the form of excessive cc’ing and bcc’ing. In addition, the use of attachments in e-mail messages in lieu of using one of the company’s document management platforms was a clear problem.

The contradiction between what knowledge workers reported in the survey and what they said in interviews is intriguing, and may simply be a function of the format. When filling out a survey, answers must fit into the rigid format of the survey, without room for nuance. In an interview, there is more room for conversation that allows for ideas to be expanded.

Knowledge workers were also asked to tell us what methods they used to deal with Information Overload. The top three responses were all very personal actions, meaning actions taken on a personal level that do not necessarily extend to teams or work groups.

The following were the top three techniques that survey respondents reported using when dealing with Information Overload:
1.) Focusing on work and limiting self-interruptions (84.5%).
2.) Use of productivity and time management systems (33.4%).
3.) Using better search techniques (33.1%).
While all three selections are valid ways to address Information Overload, the problem is that some of the most effective methods are more group-based. Those techniques were selected by low numbers of respondents

For example, indicating one’s up-to-date presence information via instant messenger has been found to be an effective way to minimize interruptions when adopted on an organizational level, yet only 14.7% of respondents reported using that technique. Additionally, turning off e-mail notifications is a highly effective method of focusing on work and not constantly checking one’s inbox; however for employees to feel comfortable in doing this, there must be a top-down understanding of expected e-mail response times. Only 12.3% of respondents indicated that they turn off e-mail notifications.

It’s clear that the knowledge workers at this company suffer greatly from Information Overload-related issues. What’s compelling about our findings here is that it’s clear that surveys without significant follow-up via interviews can result in significant underreporting of the problem.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex. He can be reached at jspira@basex.com

Big Data, Big Problems, The Next Big Thing?

Friday, May 4th, 2012 by Jonathan Spira

So much data to think about...

Slowly but surely, the corporate world is beginning to realize that the amount of information and data it generates is digging the enterprise into a hole.

It’s no surprise that the buzzword for 2012 is “Big Data,” a nebulous term that attempts to define parameters for mammoth stores of data that have become seemingly unmanageable with traditional tools.

We keep building systems that generate voluminous data. These systems include everything from information posted on social media sites, climatological information, digital images (think of the number of camera-equipped smartphones out there today), sales transactions, the list goes on and on.

Between people and machines, over 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are created daily (a quintillion is a one followed by 18 zeroes, just in case you weren’t sure).

If you check Wikipedia, you’ll learn that Big Data “consists of data sets that grow so large that they become awkward to work with using on-hand database management tools.”

Put more clearly, it’s too much of a good thing and the tools that we have simply aren’t up to the task. However, it seems that potential solutions are cropping up everywhere as is the effort to get the word out on Big Data.

You may not be aware but this is Big Data Week. If you didn’t know, you’re not alone.

Perhaps in anticipation of the festivities, Splunk, a company that offers such solutions and promises to help companies organize, listen to, and make sense of all of the information they have, rose 109% in value on its first day of trading after its IPO last week.

Also last week, perhaps as part of its ramp-up to celebrate Big Data Week, IBM announced plans to acquire Vivisimo, a search company that focuses on the federated discovery of structured and unstructured information.

The funny thing is that Big Data sounds a lot like other ideas and buzzwords we’ve seen come and go over the years. It’s closest to business intelligence and knowledge management but it promises to let you use all of your data, all the time, instead of just a sampling.

Big Data isn’t necessarily a solution, nor is having access to all of your information. Roughly a dozen years ago, the military ran tests of its Force XXI, a tool that would support complete battlefield tracking. What the military didn’t count on was the amount of Information Overload that would result from a system that provides “exquisite situational awareness.” Having more data didn’t do very much for the big brass. It was simply too much to swallow.

Around the same time, I wrote in this space about the problem that knowledge management had (and still has at this time), namely the fact that KM “doesn’t get much play in the general business press, much less attention by CEOs of major multinationals.”

I used Siemens’ CEO Heinrich von Pierer as an example of one of the few who actually did pay attention to KM, something that didn’t surprise me. Indeed, Werner Maly, a member of the Siemens management board, mentioned, in an address at a forum on Idea Management in 1998 in Frankfurt what he explained was not a new saying at Siemens: “If Siemens only knew what Siemens knew.” In a company with 60,000 engineers and scientists, the knowledge and know-how had to be somewhere. Maly asked, point blank: “How do we succeed in connecting that together?”

This is, ladies and gentlemen, what Big Data hopes to accomplish. Of course, it may succeed, but it may also take its place in a long line of attempts to connect knowledge, know-how, and information, an admirable but rather elusive goal.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

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