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The Genie is out of the bottle and he can read your mind

Thursday, March 22nd, 2012 by Cody Burke

What does your e-mail say about you?

The Economist last week reported on advanced linguistic analysis software that has been designed to “show an employee’s emotional state over time.” The software, developed by Ernst & Young, analyzes the content of e-mail communications to pinpoint potential problem areas. The example cited was monitoring e-mail for signs of employees who may be more likely to commit illegal acts.

The software is said to do this by creating a profile of a given employee’s emotional state over a period of time. Said employee might be acting angrily or in a secretive manner and this might guide internal investigators in knowing whom to keep an eye on.

The software, which essentially mines the data in e-mail messages, collects and summarizes patterns. Because what might identify one group of employees as angry might be misleading when looking at another workgroup, humans examine the results and code them appropriately based on the person’s job and workgroup among other criteria.

The human coding enables the linguistic software to adapt and learn industry-specific vernacular and speech patterns. For example, in the case of traders, the software is taught that swearing is common in that industry, and thus not an indicator of elevated stress levels.

Because this software is aimed at detecting events that might happen in the future in addition to problems that might be occurring in the present, its use is likely to be controversial. Presumably no one would have a problem if all it did was track down individuals who were predisposed to committing fraud and cheating investors, but the tool’s other potential applications are chilling.

Let’s look at how other companies have used data-mining tools to uncover information that people would not willingly disclose – or might not even be aware of themselves. For example, could the software identify a woman who is trying to become pregnant, resulting in her being passed over for a promotion? The retailer Target was recently profiled by the New York Times for doing something very similar, although they were seeking to target pregnant women with maternity-focused coupon offers by analyzing shopping data to identify the expecting women.

While it would be illegal for a company to deny a promotion on the basis of pregnancy or even a contemplated pregnancy, discrimination cases are common and do not always result in victories for the employees involved. The range of information that could be gathered by this kind of software opens the door to many other potential privacy issues, ranging from the disclosure of sensitive healthcare information to revelations about sexual orientation.

Ironically, while I was thinking about this topic, I stumbled across a New York Times piece that is a timely companion article to the Economist’s. It details how in China Internet users are forced to use a creative system of slang and near-homonyms to evade what is officially referred to in China as the Golden Shield Project, or more commonly in the rest of the world as the Great Firewall of China.

By using words that are homonyms of censored terms, Chinese activists and regular citizens skirt around the algorithms that identify banned words. For example, “harmony” is a key word used by the government to justify censorship, so Internet users make use of the word hexie (which means river crab) to describe oppression. The word is a homophone and homograph to harmonious in Chinese pinyin (Latin script transcription of Chinese characters), meaning the terms are indistinguishable from one another. Censoring river crab would also censor harmony. Although government censors are aware of the double meaning, they cannot censor the word because it would disrupt their own messaging regarding a “harmonious society.”

What worries me (and most likely others) is that the use of advanced linguistic software of the kind developed by Ernst & Young will not stop at monitoring internal communications for potential fraud. Technologies are neutral, but the use of them is not. The Great Firewall of China will be strengthened by this kind of software, and the potential for discrimination and privacy invasions will increase. Sure, some rogue traders will be stopped, but at what cost?
Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex. He can be reached at cburke@basex.com

Tablet Reality Check

Friday, March 9th, 2012 by Cody Burke

Still a bit heavy...

With this week’s announcement of the new iPad and expectations for high sales and increased tablet ownership at all-time highs, it is worth taking a minute to review the tablet landscape.

According to Pew Research, as of January 2012 the number of adults in the U.S. who own a tablet stands at 19%.  That number doubled from mid-December, due to the holiday season and driven by the introduction of lower cost tablets such as the Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet.  Interestingly, the numbers for e-reader ownership are identical, with 19% of U.S. adults owning one.  Apple CEO Tim Cook went so far as to predict in a recent speech that tablets will soon outsell PCs.  I would argue that at least in the short term, a more likely prediction is the continuing blurring of the lines between mobile and PC operating systems (see the recently announced Windows 8 and Apple OS X Mountain Lion), allowing tablets to function as extensions of a user’s PC.

Options for tablet ownership have expanded significantly as the number of companies releasing Android-based tablets has risen.  However, the iPad still dominates the market with 59%, according to February estimates by DisplaySeach.  The iPad is followed by Amazon (17%), Samsung (7%), Asus (4.6%), and Barnes and Noble (3.5%).

Size options abound for tablets.  The standard remains around 10”, with the iPad at 9.7”, but Samsung in particular has released tablets in 10.1”, 8.9”, 7”, and recently, 5”.  Samsung’s 5” Galaxy Note is more of a phone/tablet hybrid than pure tablet, but the company now plans to release larger versions of the Note.  The Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet are both 7”, but are underpowered compared to the more expensive iPad and Android offerings on the market.  Both run heavily modified versions of Android and essentially form a sub-set of tablets, halfway between an e-reader and a full featured tablet.

Consumers are using tablets in a variety of locations.  Seventy percent use tablets while they watch TV, according to Nielsen data from May 2011.  A further 50% report tablet use while in bed and one in four tablet owners uses it in the bathroom.  Interestingly but perhaps not surprisingly, tablet use leads to decreased use of both desktop PCs (35% report less use) and laptops (32%).  As of one year ago, in March 2011, Google AdMob found that when using tablets, the most reported activity is gaming (84%), followed by search (78%) and e-mail (74%).

Personally, as I have struggled to find the perfect use for my own tablet, a Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, I find myself reflected in these statistics.  I certainly have ended up using the tablet while watching TV and while in bed, and gaming, search, as well as light e-mailing suit the form factor and capabilities of the tablet perfectly.  Because (as a writer) I work with words, I have not found a way to use the tablet for work, although I can see how some professions, such as artists who need to show work to clients, would find tablets helpful.

Oh, and here is what you really came for.  Apple unveiled a new iPad with a sharper display and support for 4G mobile data networks.  The new third-generation iPad has a high resolution Retina display with four times the number of pixels found in the iPad 2.   Also aboard the new iPad is a five-megapixel rear camera that is capable of 1080p video recording, and includes built-in video stabilization. The iPad is powered by an A5X processor with quad-core graphics that is designed to support the Retina display and also be power efficient.  For more information, please read full coverage at Frequent Business Traveler.

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

In The Briefing Room: Enlocked E-mail Security Tools

Thursday, February 16th, 2012 by Cody Burke

Enlocked's "Send Secured" button shown in the Gmail interface.

Knowledge workers who have been faced with having to e-mail confidential or sensitive information know the drill.  Break up the information into a few separate e-mail messages, use an external secure e-mail tool separate from your normal e-mail system, or just assume nothing can happen and send the e-mail regardless.

None of these solutions is ideal and taking action to secure e-mail frequently requires both the sender and recipient to take extra steps that interrupt their work and waste valuable time.  Getting the information to the recipient securely may require phone calls, sending of passwords via separate e-mail channels, the creation of locked versions of documents in PDF, or packaging information in secure ZIP files.

E-mail presents us with two distinct problems.  The first is the security of the message sent.  Standard e-mail messages are not encrypted and are vulnerable to interception, making it necessary to take further precautions.  The issue of e-mail security is particularly challenging for smaller organizations or individuals who may not have enterprise-level tools available to them.

Moving out of the e-mail client environment to ensure secure communications creates a second problem: in order to secure e-mail messages, the series of steps that must be taken slow down the knowledge worker, and are often simply ignored because of their complexity.  Recently, my colleague Jonathan Spira related to me how he sent sensitive information to his banker.  He first scanned the document, saved it as a PDF file, password protecting it from prying eyes, and then e-mailed it to the banker.  He then called the banker and gave her the password over the phone.

Enlocked, an e-mail security company, is attempting to solve both of these problems in a way that will not only secure important communications and safeguard information, but also not disrupt the flow for the knowledge worker.  Enlocked integrates into either the user’s browser or e-mail client, or it can be used via a mobile app.  Users are given the option of hitting a “Send Secure” button when sending an e-mail, which encrypts the message using the company’s cloud servers.  Enlocked uses the user’s existing credentials (e.g. Google ID if Enlocked is being used with Gmail) when encrypting, so the recipient can verify the validity of the encrypted messages.

On the recipient’s end, if they are an Enlocked user, the system verifies their identity in the same way, by checking the credentials of the plug-in or app.  If they are not an Enlocked user, the recipient is prompted to either download the plugin or to use a Web-based Enlocked Anywhere tool.

The advantage of a system such as Enlocked is that it addresses the two problems outlined previously, namely security and ease of use.  The process of taking the steps needed to exchange a secure e-mail is time consuming and causes the knowledge worker to leave the e-mail client.  This violates the One Environment Rule, a key tenet of Basex’ vision of the productive work environment, the Collaborative Business Environment.  Simply put, the One Environment Rule states that the more knowledge workers stay in one overarching environment to do their work, the more likely it is that the initiative will succeed, and the knowledge workers will be productive.  Conversely, the more the knowledge workers are forced to switch work environments, the more likely they are to fail in their tasks.

When it comes to security, knowledge workers today are faced with a conundrum.  They need to secure communications, but the process of doing so with the available tools slows them down and decreases their productivity.  Knowledge workers already live in their inboxes (for better or worse), and to ensure they use secure communications, any encryption tools must be added to the e-mail client environment.  Tools such as Enlocked, which recognize the necessity of allowing the knowledge worker to complete tasks without switching work environments, could bring easy to use e-mail security to the masses.

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

What the future holds: IBM’s 5 in 5 Forecast and More Information Overload Ahead

Wednesday, December 21st, 2011 by Cody Burke

The future is murky...

On New Year’s Eve, we generally like to take stock of where we are, take a deep breath, prepare for a fresh new year with some resolutions, and of course, make wild predictions about the future.

IBM is getting into the spirit of the season with its 5 in 5, a list of five innovations that will change our lives in five years.  This is the sixth year that the company has released its list of predictions, which are driven by market data, social trends, and innovations taking place in IBM research labs.

Before we look ahead, let’s look at how IBM has done with its past predictions.  In 2006 IBM predicated that, by 2011, we would have digitized medical records and be using advanced video teleconferencing systems to speak and interact with our doctors.  We are not completely there, but we are on the way.  The company also predicted context-aware mobile devices and nanotechnology being used to control our environment.  Mobile devices have certainly evolved in that direction, and we are using advanced nanotechnology to improve solar energy collection.

In the fail column, IBM also believed that, by 2011, we would be immersed in a 3-D Internet (Snow Crash, anyone?) and that real-time translation (Star Trek-style) would be possible.

In the area of Information Overload, we previously predicted that Information Overload would continue to increase despite attempts by us and on the part of others to raise awareness of the high cost and the negative impact it has.  Unfortunately, we were correct in our prediction and the amount of Information Overload rose in lockstep with the increase in the amount of information created over the past year.

Looking to the year ahead, the trend will continue and we can expect more of the same, namely more information and more Information Overload.

This year, in its 5 in 5 forecast and on a more positive note, IBM is banking on the following:

1.)  People power.  Advances in renewable energy technology will allow for the harnessing of kinetic energy from movement such as walking or jogging, or even residual heat from individuals or machines.

2.)  Multi-factor biometrics.  Passwords will become obsolete as we increasingly rely on identification via biometric data such as facial definitions, retinal scans, and voice recognition.

3.)  Mind reading.  No, really.  Bioinformatics is the field of harnessing electronic brain activity with advanced sensors to understand facial expressions, concentration levels, and thoughts of a person.  The technology can be applied to controlling mobile devices, medical testing, and the gaming industry.

4.)  Death of the digital divide.  IBM believes that the ubiquity of mobile devices will all but eliminate the gap between those who have information access and those who do not.  The company estimates that in the next five years there will be 5.6 billion mobile devices sold, giving 80% of the 7 billion people on earth access to such a device.

5.)  Junk mail will become useful?  With both spam filters and targeted advertising becoming more precise, IBM thinks that real-time analytics will become so advanced that the technology will be able to accurately determine what you really want.  An example of this kind of predictive, targeted advertising would be reserving concert tickets for your favorite band on a night that you have a free space on your calendar, all without asking you.

This year’s 5 in 5 predictions are interesting and fun, and it is easy to see how trends support some of the ideas.  Biometrics, control of technology via brain waves, and harnessing kinetic energy in particular seem very plausible.  Eliminating the digital divide that separates the information haves from the have nots and solving the junk mail problem seem a bit trickier, but in the spirit of the holidays lets be optimistic.

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

(Image courtesy of John Stephen Dwyer)

Siri’s Little Brother TrapIt Wants to Find Things For You

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2011 by Cody Burke

You have very pretty lights TrapIt, but can you find me good content?

Finding relevant content is tricky business; not only is there an abundance of irrelevant content to confuse us and muddy the waters, but we often simply don’t know something exists until we see it.  Traditional search fails us here because that method assumes we know what we are looking for in the first place, or that we possess the forethought to make some assumptions and pick out some key words to enter into the search bar.  Perhaps what we really need are intelligent tools that suggest things to us before we even know we are looking for them.

TrapIt, a new online content discovery tool, aims to meet that need.  TrapIt was developed by the same minds that created and then sold Siri to Apple (the Siri technology has now been fully integrated into the iPhone 4S).  Both offerings leverage artificial intelligence (AI) technology that was developed as part of the CALO (Cognitive Agent that Learns and Organizes) project, an AI project funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).   Originally intended for military use, the cognitive software was designed to learn from experience, take orders, explain its own actions, and respond to unexpected input.

The key difference between the two is that Siri is a virtual assistant that responds to your verbal commands to do tasks such as setting reminders or searching for information while TrapIt is designed to seek out the things that it has determined you will find relevant, without you having to ask for them.

TrapIt is currently in beta and delivers personalized content from over 100,000 sources based on “traps”, which are essentially search terms that the user sets up.  Once created, a trap will automatically refresh itself with new content to be read when the user logs in, building a personalized homepage that reflect the user’s interests.  Creating the trap “tablet usage” for instance creates a stream of content that relates to tablets and usage data.  The user is then prompted to give thumbs up or down to the content to indicate whether it is what he was looking for or  not.  When giving a thumbs down, there are options to indicate why, such as because it was not interesting, the source was not trusted, or the content was spam.  This helps to further refine the content that is suggested going forward.

The content that TrapIt collects is refined as TrapIt analyzes how often the user clicks on specific types of content, as well as through the thumbs up or down mechanism.    Because the AI learns as TrapIt is used, it is too early to tell from my tests how effective it will be at providing relevant content, but results so far are encouraging.

Siri, the first commercial application of the CALO AI, has been well received and is quickly becoming a popular feature of the iPhone (as well as being hacked to run on older iPhone models and platforms such as Android, or even to control thermostats).  Now that TrapIt is applying the same underlying technology to content discovery, we will have a chance to see how effective the AI really is, and if it can recommend content in a way that helps to cut through the clutter of information and get us the information we really need.

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

Sleep and Knowledge Work

Tuesday, November 15th, 2011 by Cody Burke

Just one more text...

If you’re staying up late reading and/or writing e-mail, doing work, reading online forums and news, catching up on social networks – and then find yourself sleep-deprived the next day, you’re not alone.

Sleep deficiency is a major problem for knowledge workers who, due to increased mobility, are now more likely then ever to continue their work from home after leaving the office.  Even setting aside the pressure (some would even say the necessity) of answering e-mail messages or working on projects late into the night, the temptation of late-night recreational Internet and technology use is omnipresent.

Such behavior is considered poor sleep hygiene, a term that refers to one’s habits and practices at bedtime as well as environmental factors that may influence the length and quality of one’s sleep.

Consider the following statistics from the National Sleep Foundation’s 2011 “Sleep in America” poll:

- 39% of Americans bring their mobile phone into bed with them and end up using it in the hour before they go to sleep.  The number is even higher for younger Americans, 67% of 19-29 year olds.  21% of Americans end up texting during this time.

- Those individuals that end up texting in the hour before sleep are more likely to report bad sleep and not feeling refreshed.

- 1 in 10 Americans is woken up by mobile phone alerts from texts, calls, and e-mail.  The number rises to nearly 1 in 5 for 19-29 year olds.

- 36% of Americans use their laptop in bed before they go to sleep, and this group reports that it is less likely to get a good night’s sleep.

Why does this matter?  Surely we are able to deal with the loss of a little sleep in exchange for getting out that important e-mail or sending that last text of the day, right?

Unfortunately not, according to the UK-based Mental Health Foundation.  The organization’s 2011 “Sleep Matters” report notes that individuals who experience even mild sleep disorders are four times more likely to have relationship problems, three times more likely to lack concentration during their work day, three times more likely to struggle to accomplish tasks at work or during their day, and over twice as likely to suffer from energy deficiency.

Last week (in case you missed it due to being tired) was Drowsy Driving Prevention Week, a public awareness campaign by the National Sleep Foundation to highlight the issue of sleep safety.  To put the problem in perspective, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that drowsy driving results in 1,550 deaths, 71,000 injuries and more than 100,000 accidents each year.  The National Sleep Foundation estimates that drowsy driving is involved in about one in six deadly crashes and one in eight crashes resulting in hospitalization.

Presuming you are not nodding off while reading this, consider how lack of sleep might be impacting your productivity and effectiveness.  Before going to sleep, lay off e-mail and texting, and maybe even try just turning all of your devices completely off.

Sweet dreams.

 

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

 

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

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

Poor craftsmen blame their tools

Thursday, August 25th, 2011 by Cody Burke

Search 101?

Blaming search tools for failures in search is common, and more often than not without merit.  It often seems as if Google has failed us when we search for content that we know exists, yet the search results taunt us by refusing to reveal what we are looking for.

The truth however, is that we are simply incredibly bad at using search tools.  Two items came to my attention this week that demonstrates our ineptitude at finding what we are looking for.  The first was a statistic derived from research by Dan Russell, a search anthropologist at Google, who was interviewed by Alexis Madrigal for the Atlantic.  Russell studies how computer users perform searches, and found that 90% of computer users do not know how to use CTRL + F (PC) or Command + F (Mac) to search through a document or Web page.

The time that is surely wasted by not using this simple technique is staggering.  (Just to make sure we all are out of the 90%, this shortcut to the Find function allows you to search locally for keywords in a text document, PDF, e-mail, or Web page.  Try it out and join the 10%.)

The second piece of the puzzle comes from reports on the findings of the Erial (Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries) project.  The project was conducted over two years and employed both anthropologists and library staff members to examine student research habits and attitudes towards libraries and librarians.

The findings from the study will begin to be published this fall, but Steve Kolowich, writing for Inside Higher Education, notes that the researchers found that students were even worse at search than they had anticipated.  In his article, What Students Don’t Know, Kolowich discusses some of the findings, including the following;

- Only 7 out of 30 students observed at Illinois Wesleyan conducted what a librarian would consider a reasonably well-executed search.  (Presumably this encompasses such criteria as the use of appropriate search engines, Boolean logic, and authoritative sources.)

- Students mentioned Google more than twice as many times as other available databases in interviews, yet had no understanding of Google’s search logic and were not capable of formulating searches that would return good results.

- Of the students who did turn to non-Google scholarly databases for research, 50% ended up using a database that would not have been recommended by a librarian for their search needs.

- Only 3 of 30 students that were observed formulating search queries used additional keywords to narrow search queries.

- The researchers observed that students would end up with either too many or too few search results, and would often simply change their research topic to one that was easier to find information on.

It is staggeringly clear that there is a need to teach basic search techniques to students, who, without instruction, will likely go on to become part of the 90% of computer users not using simple page search.  We have created powerful search tools and technology (compared to what previous generations had available) that are capable of so much, yet we are clearly neglecting to teach proper usage and even basic understanding of search mechanics.  Even much needed advancements in search technology will not help if we are not even capable of using the tools we have now to their full potential.

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


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