» Archive for the 'Information Overload' Category

Irene: High-Tech Hurricane or Old Media Triumph?

Sunday, August 28th, 2011 by Jonathan Spira

As Hurricane Irene started to bear down on the New York metropolitan area, like many others, I started to think about preparing for a variety of eventualities including storm damage and power failure.

The View from the Eighth Floor

Though the storm packed a good punch, with strong winds and heavy rain, it never reached the potential that meteorologists had forecast. Indeed, wind speeds reached 80 mph (128 km/h) at times but, in general, sustained winds were(according to news reports) at most in the 60 mph (96 km/h) range and generally far lower.

Some storm-related preparatory tasks were relatively easy, such as removing all of the outdoor furniture from my terrace (and hoped that neighbors, especially those living on higher floors, had done the same). After reading that the FBI told its employees to make sure to place papers and files inside desk drawers so that they wouldn’t fly out if office windows broke, I moved all papers (what happened to the Paperless Society?) away to safety. I thought about taping the windows but, apparently, prevailing wisdom has shifted away from this so I decided that the shades and blinds would have to protect against possible broken glass.

Experts on television and radio were telling apartment dwellers to stay away from windows if they lived on the 10th floor or higher since the higher you go, the stronger the wind gusts get. One of my criteria for living on the eighth floor of my high-rise condo was that the fire department ladders didn’t go much higher. Now I had another reason.

Then there was water. In the event of a power failure, the pumps that supply water in taller buildings won’t work. I filled five larger pots just to be safe. I already had plenty of bottled water to drink so that part was covered.

Now came the hard part, namely news and information. If the power went out, my main Internet connection (Verizon FiOS) would also go down (although the FiOS connection does have battery backup, it is intended to keep voice services up and running for up to eight hours, but not data). I made the switch to Internet radio years ago and migrated my last battery-operated radio (a shower radio) to Wi-Fi last year. There’s got to be a battery operated radio here somewhere…

It turns out I actually had two. One is a battery-operated Radio Shack weather radio, the other a small battery-operated clock radio. Of course the clock-radio hadn’t been touched in years, the batteries had been left in way too long and had corroded but, after a quick cleaning, it worked reasonably well with new batteries.

Now onto ensuring a modicum of Internet connectivity. My new HTC Sensation phone has a built-in 4G hotspot and I also have a Clear 4G hotspot. I charged both and also made sure any other mobile phones I had lying around well charged as well. My Apple iPad was already fully charged and I would need its ten-hour battery life if the power went out (I made sure that the most recent issues of the Economist and other newspapers and magazines had been downloaded, to minimize the need for Internet connectivity. Finally, I also charged my Nikon D90 DSLR in case a photo opportunity presented itself (it didn’t but one never knows).

It turns out that television news about hurricanes is highly addicting when you are in the path of the storm. Based on the dearth of my friends’ Facebook posts, I would say that most of them were watching the news as well. Unlike what I heard right after the earthquake (which shook Washington and New York and was centered in Virginia) where there were reports that there had been 5,000 Twitter posts per second, I heard no such stats being bandied about during Irene. In fact, the news media seemed downright serious about the coverage and reportage was in many respects at its best, demonstrating the power and often-overlooked value of old media.

Indeed, during severe storms and power failures, when cell sites and towers go down and wireless data becomes unreliable, AM radio, which first came into existence in 1906, and broadcast television, which came into widespread use in the 1940s, are still the media to which almost everyone turns

More than 1.3 million people are without power in the tri-state area as I write this. At one point, the Long Island Power Authority was reporting that 25% of its customers were impacted by a blackout. As I write this, the skies are brightening although cloudy with occasional sprinkles. The flood warnings continue for the tri-state area as rivers and lakes continue to rise and it will take days to restore power to millions of people along the eastern seaboard so we are not quite out of the woods yet, but the forecast for radio and television news is for clear skies.

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

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.

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

Replying To All

Thursday, May 26th, 2011 by Jonathan Spira

The problem that occurs when knowledge workers click the “reply to all” button entered the big leagues earlier this year when a Bridgestone commercial during the Superbowl showed a person freaking out when a co-worker told him he hit reply to all.

Sorry, everyone, I didn't mean to hit reply to all on my typewriter

In my new book, Overload! How Too Much Information is Hazardous To Your Organization, I discuss the reaction to one company’s attempt to rein in the problem.  Nielsen, a global concern whose businesses range from television and other media measurement to business publications, told its employees that the company would eliminate reply to all functionality in their company’s e-mail client.

The truth is that Nielsen didn’t eliminate the functionality, just the button, so workarounds were easy and people continued to use reply to all.

The overuse of the reply to all function in e-mail is, without question, a huge source of e-mail overload in almost every organization.  But there are still many instances where its use is not only warranted but helpful, including e-mail messages where only a few people are copied and a reply to all is warranted.

As I note in the book, Nathan Zeldes, president of IORG and former director of information overload reduction strategies at Intel, had a far more prosaic recommendation for Nielsen and others: move the position of reply to all on the toolbar away from the reply button, making people less likely to click it inadvertently.  My advice is along similar lines: I would have recommended that Nielsen modify the e-mail client to notify the sender if he were about to send to more than five people and ask if he wished to continue.

Replying to all can in fact endanger national security.  Another scenario I present in the book was told to me by Col. Peter Marksteiner of the United States Air Force.  During the Air Force Cyber Symposium at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama in July 2008, where several hundred experts including ranking military officers were focusing on the threat hackers and terrorists in far-off lands such as China and Russia might pose.  A somewhat unsophisticated e-mail user forwarded a note about what the sender referred to as “the funnest (sic) card/dice game” to multiple respondents.  The message ended up being sent to two fairly large e-mail group lists and the ensuing barrage of “take me off your list” replies – with many users hitting reply to all – shut down the e-mail server supporting two bases, including the one that was hosting the cyber conference.

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


Your Information Overload Stories

Thursday, May 19th, 2011 by Cody Burke

In conjunction with the publication of Overload!, Jonathan Spira’s new book on Information Overload, he will also be launching Overload Stories.  By providing a space to share stories, experiences, and coping strategies that knowledge workers have developed, it will expand upon and continue the mission of raising awareness of Information Overload.

Even though the site is currently in beta, we have already received many insightful and illuminating stories, and thought we would share two excerpts with our readers as a preview of what Overload Stories will offer.  The full stories can be viewed at www.overloadstories.com.

From Sue Gladen, Writer

“I’m a writer, and a distracted one, so the internet is a problem.  Especially because the internet lives right in the same box that I rely on to do my writing.  It is a feng shui problem.  There is no way to separate the tool that I use to write from the tool that I use to access the world wide web, and the lack of division in the tool muddies the task at hand.

The closest physical example I can think of is the similarity of garden tools to kitchen tools.  You wouldn’t store a garden spade in your silverware drawer, would you?  They are essentially the same materials, with similar shapes and functions.  Still, the mere proximity of the garden tool that has been out there digging through the dirt would make the kitchen utensils seem unfit for cooking.  They don’t go in the same drawer.  In most houses, they don’t even go in the same room!”

From Stephen Lefebvre, a senior manager at an energy company

“It was not until I turned everything back on that I realized how big a problem I had.  A few years ago I found myself struggling to make time to prepare some end-of-year performance reviews.  As the deadline loomed I did something drastic, something I had not done in some time, I shut it all off; the Blackberry, the e-mail client, the news feeds, the instant messenger, I put the phone on do-not-disturb, I closed my office door.

The first half hour was agony.  Although I refused to let myself start MSOutlook, the urge to clear a few e-mails was surprisingly strong.  I thrashed to stay focused on the task at hand, and found myself agitated at being disconnected.  Then something magic happened – I looked up and 2 hours had sped by.  I had given my full attention to one important assignment.  That was the day I realized the toll that information overload had taken on my performance.  That was the day that I started to view information-overload as an addiction.”

If you would like to contribute your story in advance of the book’s publication and launch of the Web site, please e-mail it to us at stories@basex.com.  We are looking for two- to three-paragraph stories about how Information Overload has impacted you and/or your organization and what you are doing to combat the problem.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.

Taming Information Overload by Opting Out

Thursday, May 5th, 2011 by Cody Burke

In the last 25 years, thanks to technological developments and the introduction of the 24-hour news cycle, the level of news that we are exposed to has risen dramatically.

Where exactly is the "opt out" button?

Today we have a plethora of options for keeping up with current events, with even old standards such as television, radio, and newspapers updated for the digital age and turned into nearly always accessible Internet offerings.  Add to this mix 24-hour cable news, citizen blogger/journalists, Twitter, news aggregation Web sites, etc., and the sheer quantity of available news for consumption quickly becomes overwhelming.  All of this information adds to the tidal wave of Information Overload, which lowers comprehension levels and impacts our ability to be productive.

The prevailing theory, as told to us by news organizations among others, is that the more we know, the better informed we are, and the better our decision making will be.

Rolf Dobelli, a Swiss novelist, has a dramatically different view on this.  He believes that news is extremely damaging to us on multiple levels, ranging from our ability to understand complex arguments all the way through to our health.  In a white paper entitled Avoid News: Towards a Healthy News Diet, Dobelli lays out his case for giving up on the news completely as a way to tame Information Overload.  His method may seem extreme to some, but his argument is persuasive, if maybe a bit naïve.

The premise of his argument is that news systematically misleads us, limits true understanding, is largely irrelevant, increases cognitive errors, is manipulative, and is often simply incorrect.  The reasons for this all stem from the very nature of news as ephemeral and inherently flawed as a reliable information source.  The business model of news favors the new over the relevant because that is what sells papers and attracts listeners and viewers, not because it is the best way to deliver detailed analysis and deep, thought out arguments.

Dobelli also points out that news is costly, both in terms of time spent consuming and in the recovery time it takes to refocus after being exposed to news.  Further, it is likely that an individual will devote at lease some time, at a later date, thinking about some news item that is in all likelihood extremely irrelevant, breaking concentration once again.

Much in the same way that we now know that multitasking is damaging, Dobelli notes that “[T]he more news we consume, the more we exercise the neural circuits devoted to skimming and multitasking while ignoring those used for reading deeply and thinking with profound focus.”

Dobelli builds a strong argument for giving up on news completely.  He advocates relying on truly important news being filtered through friends and family whose judgment you trust and who know your interests.  The other way that he recommends getting information is reading in-depth articles in respected journals, and reading books.  By doing this, it is possible to avoid the many errors that are inadvertently inserted in a news story as it is breaking, and give the author or investigate journalist time to do proper research and place the news into context, where it is infinitely more valuable to building a real understanding of events.

As convincing as as Dobelli’s argument may be, the question remains: how realistic is it to follow this cold turkey approach?  In many industries one is expected to be on top of the news and act accordingly, despite the obvious downside to acting without proper reflection and in-depth research.  So, an open question to readers, would you be able to cut out the news and do your job?  Or is it an unrealistic goal, despite the benefits such an information diet might bring you?

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.

Is The Future of Work Less E-mail?

Thursday, April 21st, 2011 by Cody Burke

This week, Skype and GigaomPro released The Future of Workplaces, a study on the changing nature of work.  The report focused on the increase in remote working and the way that changes in technology use are impacting that trend.  In conjunction with the report, Skype launched a series of video interviews on the subject of remote work and the changing workplace; one of the featured speakers is Basex’ chief analyst Jonathan Spira.

The overall conclusions of the study that remote work is on the upswing, due to the capabilities of new technologies that have begun to enter into the business world from the consumer market, should come as no surprise to most knowledge workers.  Effective collaboration technologies have been sorely needed to address the complications of working across disparate time zones, between ad hoc teams, and across large enterprise environments that may not have effective knowledge sharing and collaboration tools in place.  The rise of effective desktop video tools, VoIP calling, and increasingly powerful mobile devices supports a move away from what Spira calls the “Dilbertian” work environments.

The study also contains some interesting statistics about Information Overload and communications tools, which bear some discussion in light of our own ongoing research in these areas.

According to the report, 42% of those surveyed felt that the workplace is increasingly suffering from Information Overload.  This correlates with our own survey data, which shows that over 50% of knowledge workers feel that the amount of information they are presented with on a daily basis is detrimental to getting their work done, and that 94% at some point have felt overwhelmed by information to the point of incapacitation.

Interestingly, the Gigaom study also stated that 35% of respondents felt that e-mail was the number one contributor to Information Overload.  E-mail is clearly a large contributor, but when conceptualizing Information Overload, one must also consider non-technology sources, such as interruptions, meetings, and the impact of multitasking.

The narrative of late in the media is that e-mail is in decline, and data shows that although it is still a major business communications tool, there are signs that its prominence is slipping.  The Future of Workplaces study states that e-mail (as well as the office landline) is likely to decline in use.  Only 35% said that they would use e-mail more in the future than they do presently, compared to 40% who said they now use e-mail more compared to last year.  Although the concept of expected use is problematic and should be taken with a grain of salt, this shows a decline in the expected use of the tool; conversely, almost all the other technologies studied showed higher rates of expected future use than present use.  Expected use of video conferencing and calling, VoIP calling, instant messaging, texting, and mobile phones all showed increases.  Interestingly, the numbers for social networking tools were essentially level; 29% said they were likely to use the tools more in the future, and 30% said they were using more compared to last year.

This may be a good sign, as a reduction in e-mail portends positive benefits for the knowledge worker.  However, caution is warranted here, because the likelihood is that knowledge workers will simply transfer something that was sent via e-mail to another communications medium.  In some cases, such as an IM conversation about what to have for lunch, that is a good thing.  In other cases, such as a poorly filtered activity feed full of irrelevant information that must be sorted through, more Information Overload may actually be introduced through a move away from e-mail.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.

The Impact of Interruptions and Multitasking On Knowledge Worker Efficiency and Effectiveness

Thursday, April 14th, 2011 by Cody Burke

So this is going to get worse as I get older?

Interruptions and multitasking are two afflictions that take a tremendous toll on our ability to focus, complete tasks, and be productive.  Our own research on interruptions shows that the recovery time, that is, the time it takes an individual to return to a task after being interrupted, can be as much as 10 to 20 times the length of the original interruption.  This means a 30 second interruption can result in an average of five minutes of recovery time, and that is optimistically assuming that one returns to the original task and does not abandon it.

It’s already been established that multitasking is not really possible for the human brain to engage in with any efficiency; instead, it is really just a series of interruptions, or task switches.  Multitasking results in lowered efficiency in all of the tasks being performed: there is no substitute for focused thinking on a single task.

New research from the University of California, San Francisco, that was published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that the impact of multitasking and interruptions on older people is even more pronounced.  The study took 20 young adults with an average age of 25, and 20 older adults, with an average age of 69, and showed both groups a landscape picture.  They were told to keep the picture in their mind, and were then shown an image of a face and were asked several questions about it.  Then the subjects were shown another landscape picture, and asked to determine if it matched the first picture they were shown.

While the subjects were being shown the images, their brains were being scanned using an fMRI machine to show brain activity.  Both groups were able to switch from the landscape picture to the face image with the same proficiency, however, the brain scans showed that the elderly subjects took longer to switch from thinking about the image of the face back to the landscape portraits.  (The younger subjects were negatively impacted as well, but not as severely as the older subjects.)

Dubbed an “interruption recovery failure” by the researchers, the findings suggest that, as we age, our ability to recover from interruptions is reduced.  Another (albeit unlikely) interpretation of the findings is that there are also cultural factors at work, such as the younger test group’s relatively higher exposure to high amounts of distraction and interruptions as they grow up.

A critical outcome from the study was that the initial hypothesis, that older people experienced more detrimental effects from interruptions because they fixated on the new interruption more than younger people, was false.  In fact, the degree to which the subjects switched focus to the interruption was the same regardless of age; it is the “interruption recovery failure,” or what we call recovery time, that set the groups apart.

For the knowledge worker, young or old, the study demonstrates not only the existence of the recovery time phenomenon but also that it may increase in severity with age.  We don’t yet fully understand the impact that excessive multitasking and interruptions have on the brain as it develops and ages, but we do know now that there is a very real impact on brain activity, and we should redouble our efforts to reduce both the interruptions we are subjected to, as well as those we inflict on others.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.

In the Briefing Room: Harmon.ie

Thursday, March 17th, 2011 by Cody Burke

E-mail and SharePoint, living in harmony?

One of the weakest points in knowledge worker productivity and effectiveness is the constant need to switch among applications and windows while working.  These additional steps take extra time; they also increase the likelihood of errors.  The reasons for this are myriad and range from the time penalty of moving between applications to the exposure to interruptions that sidetrack and delay work.

The concept of a Collaborative Business Environment, which includes the vaunted One Environment Rule, both anticipates and describes this problem.  It also provides direction in terms of how to address this problem. 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.

We are increasingly seeing products in the marketplace that adhere to the CBE philosophy.  Last week met with Harmon.ie, a company whose eponymously-named product promises to deliver “social e-mail”.

To do this, Harmon.ie provides a sidebar that works with Microsoft Outlook and IBM Lotus Notes e-mail clients.  This sidebar provides access to SharePoint files from the respective e-mail clients, as well as collaboration features such as presence awareness and instant messaging, via integration with Microsoft OCS or IBM Lotus Sametime, depending on the edition.

The mantra behind the offering, as articulated to us by David Lavenda, vice president of marketing and product strategy, is “One window, one context.”  Obviously, this appeals to us as the creators of the One Environment Rule.

Where Harmon.ie really shines however, is the way in which it deals with poor e-mail behavior, namely the gratuitous sending of attachments.  If users send a file as an attachment, they are prompted by the system to confirm whether they actually want to send the attachment, or have the system instead automatically place the file into SharePoint and replace the file in the e-mail with a link.

Research conducted by Basex in 2010 revealed that 60% of knowledge workers e-mail documents as attachments to colleagues for review.  Due to the resulting confusion when managing the multiple copies of a document this method creates, over 40% of knowledge workers miss edits and changes in documents that they get back from review.  Keeping documents in a repository and sending links not only keeps inboxes from becoming overcrowded with large files, but also avoids the many problems that creep into a document review process when reviewers work on stand-alone copies of the document.

Our research and observations at Basex have shown that modifying individual behavior patterns is extremely hard to do.  Knowledge workers, like all humans, tend to resist change and by default will fall back to what they see as the path of least resistance, even if that path is actually harder and more time consuming.  Managing document review by e-mail attachments, and making the inbox the hub of one’s work both fall into this category.  For a variety of reasons, the inbox may not be the best place to center knowledge work around, but the reality is that knowledge workers spend vast amounts of time there, and are unlikely change that behavior anytime soon.

Solutions that take the approach Harmon.ie is taking, which is to improve the tool that is already in use (e-mail) by streamlining processes and automatically correcting bad behavior (such as sending files as attachments), have great potential in terms of improving everyone’s effectiveness and efficiency by precisely adhering to the principles of the One Environment Rule, and because they do not force a large scale behavior change on the user.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.