» Archive for the 'Knowledge Economy' Category

The Tech Industry and Information Overload

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010 by Jonathan Spira

Just whom am I supposed to call about all this?

While it’s clear that technology has been an enabler for Information Overload, several questions arise including the extent to which the tech industry is to blame and what the tech industry is doing.  This needs to be examined both in terms of developing new solutions that fight the problem as well as fixing problems in existing tools that encourage more Information Overload.

With every significant development, from Gutenberg’s printing press to Carlson’s photocopier to IBM’s personal computer, mankind found itself able to create and distribute more and more information.  The rapid advances made in information and communication technology in the past two decades have further exacerbated the situation.

Unfortunately, these developments brought with them neither the tools to better filter neither the information that was generated nor the knowledge of how to use the tools in the most responsive manner.

The first time, from what I can tell, that the tech industry acknowledged the problem publicly was in the mid 1990s, when Reuters, a business information provider, decided to exploit the problem by positioning itself as a solution for “Information Fatigue Syndrome,” a term coined not by doctors but by Reuters marketing agency, Firefly. (Firefly won a PR Effectiveness Award for this campaign in 1998.)

Reuters went so far as to hire a psychologist specializing in stress, who then wrote a research report on IFS, to add a measure of gravitas to the campaign.  After receiving a considerable amount of coverage, however, Reuters moved on to the next campaign and forgot all about IFS.

It’s not just the tech industry (which somewhat ironically refers to its customers as “users”) that should shoulder some of the blame, but it should also contribute to the development of a long-term solution.  There is an entire ecosystem built around information, with millions of consultants and information producers, which serves to prove that the knowledge economy is in full swing and that the genie is out of the bottle and won’t return anytime soon.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

The Knowledge Worker’s Day: Our Findings

Thursday, November 4th, 2010 by Jonathan Spira

To successfully manage in the knowledge economy, there are key differences in how knowledge workers work that we must recognize.

Is it time for thought and reflection yet?

For all intents and purposes, knowledge workers “own” the means of production and take it home with them every day, along with invaluable knowledge they develop as they perform their tasks.  Their work is generally not tied to a physical or specific location.  They also have rather different expectations about work and tools, often more demanding than those of industrial workers.

In the course of their jobs, knowledge workers perform tasks that can be grouped under a few overarching categories.  The tasks include searching, creating content (sometimes re-creating), thought and reflection, sharing knowledge, and networking.  All of these areas can be accomplished in more traditional ways, i.e. through direct contact with people, or increasingly, aided by technology.

In early 2010, Basex conducted a survey asking knowledge workers to describe their workday.  The questions included topics such as how long the typical workday was, how much time was devoted to various information sources, and how knowledge workers were impacted by Information Overload.

What we found was striking, compared to the last research we published on the knowledge worker’s day back in 2008 when we found that the typical knowledge worker was only able to devote 12% of the day to thought and reflection.

Here are some of the final findings:

  • 66% of knowledge workers feel they don’t have enough time to get all of their work done.
  • Over 50% of knowledge workers feel that the amount of information they are presented with on daily basis is detrimental to getting their work done.
  • 94% of those surveyed at some point have felt overwhelmed by information to the point of incapacity.
  • 30% of knowledge workers have no time at all for thought and reflection during their day, and 58% had only between 15 and 30 minutes.

A typical day in the life of the knowledge worker is comprised less of traditional work and more of a frenetic pace that intermingles people and technology interruptions with attempts to create content, find things, and attend meetings.

The Knowledge Worker’s Day:
25% – Information Overload
19% – Content creation
19% – Reading content
17% – Meetings/Phone Calls/Social Interaction
10% – Search and Research
5% – Personal time
5% – Thought and reflection

For our purposes, we define content to include e-mail related tasks, so e-mail time is essentially split between the content creation and reading content percentages.  It is interesting to note as well that the vast majority of knowledge workers spend between 30 minutes and no time at all managing their inboxes.

Since the underpinnings of knowledge work are thought and reflection, it’s ironic that these activities take up a mere 5% of the day, and Information Overload, the thing that holds the knowledge work back, occupies the greatest part of the day.

Knowledge workers are nowhere near as productive, efficient, or effective as they could be – and this is in part due to the problem of Information Overload.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

The Knowledge Worker’s Day: Here’s What We’ve Found So Far

Thursday, July 8th, 2010 by Jonathan Spira

To find out a bit more about how knowledge workers spend their days and how Information Overload impacts them, a few weeks ago we launched a brief survey that asks you to look at your most recent full day at work and answer a few questions. If you haven’t already taken the survey, please stop here and take it now.

And how was your day?

Now that a few hundred people have taken the survey, we would like to share some preliminary results with you.

— 63% of knowledge workers feel they don’t have enough time to get all of their work done.

— 49% of knowledge workers feel that the amount of information they are presented with on daily basis is detrimental to getting their work done.

— 58% of those surveyed feel overwhelmed by information to the point of incapacity at least several times a week.

— 29% of knowledge workers have no time at all for thought and reflection during their day, and 58% had only between 15 and 30 minutes.

Please also help us get the word out about the survey by posting a link to it on your company’s intranet, your blog, your Facebook page, and anywhere else where knowledge workers might congregate. The more people participating in the survey, the better we will be able to take the first steps to increase our own productivity.

Participants will receive an Executive Summary of the survey’s findings and can also enter a drawing to win a set of Dilbert CubeGuard information overload blockers (three sets will be awarded).

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

When Too Much Knowledge Becomes a Dangerous Thing

Thursday, June 17th, 2010 by Jonathan Spira

Socrates was relentless in his pursuit of knowledge and truth and this eventually led to his death   In The Apology, Plato writes that Socrates believed that the public discussion of important issues was necessary for a life to be of value.  “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Danger, Professor Robinson?

In the olden days, before the Web, someone wishing to leak secret government documents would adopt a code name (think “Deep Throat” of the Watergate era) and covertly contact a journalist.  The reporter would then publish the information if, in the view of the reporter, editor, and publisher, it did not cross certain lines, such as placing the lives of covert CIA agents in danger.

Enter WikiLeaks.

WikiLeaks, founded in 2006, describes itself as “a multi-jurisdictional public service designed to protect whistleblowers, journalists and activists who have sensitive materials to communicate to the public.”

The site was founded to support “principled leaking of information.”  A classic example of an individual following this line or reasoning, namely that leaking classified information is necessary for the greater good, is that of Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers, thereby exposing the U.S. government’s attempts to deceive the U.S. public about the Vietnam War.  The decision by the New York Times to publish the Pentagon Papers is credited with shortening the war and saving thousands of lives.

Time magazine wrote that WikiLeaks, located in Sweden, where laws protect anonymity, “… could become as important a journalistic tool as the Freedom of Information Act.”

On the other hand, the U.S. government considers WikiLeaks to be a potential threat to security.  In a document eventually published on the WikiLeaks site, the Army Counterintelligence Center wrote that WikiLeaks “represents a potential force protection, counterintelligence, operational security (OPSEC), and information security (INFOSEC) threat to the US Army.”  The document also states that “the identification, exposure, termination of employment, criminal prosecution, legal action against current or former insiders, leakers, or whistleblowers could potentially damage or destroy this center of gravity and deter others considering similar actions from using the WikiLeaks.org web site.”

Ten days ago, Wired magazine reported that U.S. officials had arrested Spc. Bradley Manning, a 22-year-old army intelligence analyst who reportedly leaked hundreds of thousands of classified documents and records as well as classified U.S. combat videos to WikiLeaks.

Although WikiLeaks confidentiality has never been breached, Manning reportedly bragged about his exploits, resulting in his apprehension.

According to Wired, Manning took credit for leaking the classified video of a helicopter air strike in Baghdad that also claimed the lives of several civilian bystanders.  The previously-referenced Army Counterintelligence Center document also reportedly came from Manning.

The case of Manning is perhaps the tip of the iceberg.  Several million people in the U.S. hold security clearances and, while their motives may vary from clear (e.g. trying to end a war as in the case of Ellsberg) to unclear (e.g. Manning), the genie is clearly out of the bottle.

Socrates, a social and moral critic, preferred dying for his beliefs rather than to recant them.  Indeed, Plato referred to Socrates as the “gadfly” of the state.  The motives of today’s leakers may not be as virtuous as Socrates’ but today’s technology virtually ensures that a secret may not remain a secret for very long.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

Understanding Our Information Diet

Wednesday, June 2nd, 2010 by Jonathan Spira and Cody Burke

The somewhat elusive key to understanding Information Overload, and thus developing meaningful solutions to lessen its impact, is to first develop a clear picture of the amount of information that individuals receive and consume and also develop an understanding of how much information is too much in a given circumstance.

Just how hungry for information are you now?

This is a tricky set of problems because information does not lend itself to direct measurement.  Traditionally, researchers have approached this question in one of three ways, namely looking at words, bytes, or time.  A document, for instance, could be high in words, low in bytes, and high in time spent reading it.  A video clip on the other hand, could be low in words, high in bytes, and low in time.

Research conducted at the University of California, San Diego tells us that roughly 3.6 zettabytes of information were consumed by Americans in their homes in 2008.  This translates to ca. 11.8 hours a day of information consumption.  Those numbers are, as stated, for information received and consumed solely in the home and do not address business settings.

In the coming months we will begin our efforts to determine how much information knowledge workers consume in the course of their work, thereby developing a profile and understanding of the knowledge workers’ information diet.

One concept we are studying is satisficing, a method of decision making that seeks to reach an “adequate” solution to a problem, as opposed to searching relentlessly for the optimal solution that may cost more in time spent than it is worth.  Satisficing is a naturally occurring and largely subconscious thought process that probably kept humankind from starving at some point in history, when our ancestors decided that they could make do with the berries on the tree and not wait forever for the perfect mammoth to pass by.

Depending on the circumstances, knowledge workers are both under- and overusing this strategy.  This frequently leaves them with sub-par solutions to a problem or results in wasted time when a simpler solution exists.

Another interesting concept we are grappling with is how to measure information.  The Shannon entropy, developed by Claude E. Shannon in 1948, is a way to measure the average information content of a message in units such as bits.  Perhaps more intriguing, it also provides a way to measure the information content that knowledge workers miss when they are unaware of a random variable.  For example, if only the last letter of a word is missing, it would be relatively easy to determine the word, as the other letters would provide context.  However, if only one or two of the letters in the word are presented, it will be much harder to determine the word, as there is little or no context.

Since this is ongoing work, and many of you readers have backgrounds in this area, we would like to hear from you in the coming weeks.  What do you think is the most valid way to measure information?  How much work related information do you estimate you are exposed to on a daily basis and how are you making these estimates?

Please participate in the discussion below.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.
Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.

The Poor, Neglected Office Suite

Thursday, May 13th, 2010 by Jonathan Spira

Perhaps it’s because desktop productivity applications such as word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation software are so ubiquitous and have been around for so long (relatively speaking) that many people take them for granted.

When will our suite be upgraded?

People have been using computers to process words for decades but the ante has been raised significantly in the past five years, as knowledge workers have come to rely upon basic desktop productivity tools to not only provide basic functionality but to either offer or work in concert with applications that support the levels of knowledge sharing and collaboration that are de rigueur in the twenty-first century Knowledge Economy.

Microsoft has long owned what is considered the office suite market although a host of companies have been nipping at its heels, offering everything from free, open-source suites to free online suites.

The two most prominent competitors, OpenOffice.org, which offers the OpenOffice.org Productivity Suite, and Google, which offers the free Google Apps as well as the paid Google Apps Premier Edition, have captured a tiny percentage of Microsoft’s 600 million users yet the amount of mindshare these offerings enjoy goes well beyond their actual market presence.

Many organizations have sat out the last one or two upgrade cycles in both the Microsoft Office and Windows arenas and they also haven’t upgraded their PCs, which, in many cases, may be five years or older.  As a result, the clock is ticking and these organizations will need to make decisions about new office suites this year and next.

While free software may sound appealing, the reality of the situation is quite different.  Since the market for desktop productivity tools is so large, and office suites comprise the single most-used tool or set of tools used by knowledge workers, we decided to put Microsoft Office 2010 under a microscope and see what has changed and how those changes impact the knowledge worker.  In addition, we also dissected and compared Microsoft Office 2010 and its two closest competitors, namely the Google and OpenOffice.org offerings.

We put our findings in the form of two very detailed reports and they are now both available to you online.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

Welcome to the Information Age

Thursday, April 29th, 2010 by Jonathan Spira

The Information Age had its start in the early 1980s with the break-up of the Bell System and AT&T, a move that led to a competitive telecoms environment that was able to build the commercial Internet that is somewhat taken for granted today.

This communications revolution has brought with it myriad changes in how work is done.  While as recently as five years ago, much knowledge work was relatively solitary, today knowledge workers expect to be able to tap into a variety of resources – be they people, information, tools, or the collective knowledge of an organization – when doing their work.

One thing that has changed is the recognition that knowledge workers (sometimes referred to as information workers) are the lynchpins of the Information Age.  Ironically, many of the tools that support knowledge work, while having acquired significant functionality, haven’t changed to better support new ways of working.  What has to happen is nothing less than revolutionary; software needs to adapt to the new way of working collaboratively and software development needs to support this paradigm from the ground up.

In part, little has changed within the enterprise because we have yet to develop a management science for the knowledge economy that managers can apply in crafting strategy, designing products, managing people, and leveraging technology.  It took a good 150 years from the dawn of the Industrial Revolution until the beginnings of a management science began to take shape.  Today, we are in the first quarter century of the knowledge economy and all we can do is borrow the management science from the previous epoch and try to adapt it, an action somewhat akin to trying to fit a square peg into a round hole and one resulting in great inefficiencies.

Taylorism, the management science of the industrial age first enunciated by Frederick Winslow Taylor, included standardizing work or replacing humans with machines and finding the “one best way” to perform tasks.  Indeed, a 1974 article in the New York Times discussed how companies were following this course and turning offices into factories by splitting the traditional secretary’s job into two parts and sending some secretaries off to word processing centers to type documents and others to administrative support stations to file papers and answer phones.

It is clear today that such “improvements” were not appropriate for knowledge work and such attempts exemplify the fact that we still have a long way to go.

David M. Goldes is the president of Basex.

Am I a Supertasker?

Thursday, April 8th, 2010 by Cody Burke

Humans by nature tend to both overestimate their own abilities to do things and despair on the perceived ability of others to do the same.

24 monitors? I can handle it!

We all believe we are special. Indeed, that’s why we would all likely be in agreement that talking on the phone or texting while driving is dangerous and should not be done. Yet when push comes to shove, we may make exceptions for ourselves, and take a call that comes in while we careen down the freeway. We tell ourselves that we can handle it, that we are adept multitaskers, or supertaskers, even as we give dirty looks to others doing the same thing.

It appears that some of us are right about being supertaskers, but it is probably not who you think (meaning not you).

A recent study conducted by psychologists at the University of Utah was designed to examine the extent to which subjects could talk on a mobile phone and drive at the same time.

The 200 subjects participated in a driving simulation that mimicked ordinary traffic conditions, with occasional instances where they would have to slow down to avoid hitting something in front of them. As a baseline, each participant drove with no other stimulus and then drove while engaging in a conversation via a hands-free mobile phone. The researchers read sets of two to five words, with simple math problems that had to be indentified as true or false interspersed between the word sets. The subject was then asked to recall words in the order that they were presented.

The study found that 97.5% of the subjects’ driving was significantly impaired while on the phone, meaning they took an average of 20% longer to hit the brakes when necessary. Word recall dropped 11% and math accuracy dropped 3%.

However, the study also revealed that 2.5% of the subjects drove and multitasked the same or actually better while on the phone. For that group brake response times remained the same, math accuracy was unchanged, and word recall accuracy actually rose 3%.

Sounds great? Here is the problem.

If you think you are one of these people, you probably are not. Statistically, the odds are against you, you have about a one in 40 probability of being a supertasker. Additionally, people who are very good at things tend to underestimate their abilities, while those who are not as good tend to overestimate. This is backed up by research from Stanford that shows that those who frequently multitask are actually worse at it than those that avoid it.

For the overwhelming majority of knowledge workers, while they may believe that they are faster and more efficient by multitasking, multitasking actually slows down the flow of work and can introduce errors and mistakes. Statistics say you are unlikely to actually be a supertasker, so just don’t do it.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.

How Green is Your Office?

Thursday, November 19th, 2009 by Jonathan Spira

America Recycles Day was this past Sunday, but the office seemed (especially because it was a non-workday) left out of the dialog.

Is your office this green?

Is your office this green?

There’s no question that our actions can have a significant impact on the environment and that more and more people are taking steps to protect it through activities as varied as using alternative transportation (from public transportation to electric cars and hybrids) and recycling waste.

But what about the office?  The office environment is the site of much waste, from overuse of paper, thanks to Information Overload, to leaving lights and computers turned on at all times.  Zombie servers suck up power, leaving managers to wonder why their electric bills are so high.

To better understand people’s energy usage habits in work environments we developed a brief survey, which you can take by clicking here.

Participants will receive an Executive Summary of the survey’s findings and can also enter a drawing to win a $200 gift card from American Express.  Please share the survey link with colleagues; the more people who take the survey, the more we all can do to protect the environment.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

Information Overload – It Isn’t Just Too Much E-mail

Thursday, August 20th, 2009 by Jonathan Spira

One might assume that pinpointing the sources of Information Overload is relatively black and white, i.e. it’s just too much e-mail. In reality, nothing could be farther from the truth.

The problem of Information Overload is multifaceted and impacts each and every organization whether top executives and managers are aware of it or not.  In addition to e-mail, Information Overload stems from the proliferation of content, growing use of social networking tools, unnecessary interruptions in the workplace, failed searches, new technologies that compete for the worker’s attention, and improved and ubiquitous connectivity (making workers available anytime regardless of their location).  Information Overload is harmful to employees in a variety of ways as it lowers comprehension and concentration levels and adversely impacts work-life balance.  Since almost no one is immune from the effects of this problem, when one looks at it from an organizational point-of-view, hundreds of thousands of hours are lost at a typical organization, representing as much as 25% of the work day.

So what else besides e-mail overload is at issue here?  Here’s a quick rundown.

- Content
We have created billions of pictures, documents, videos, podcasts, blog posts, and tweets, yet if these remain unmanaged it will be impossible for anyone to make sense out of any of this content because we have no mechanism to separate the important from the mundane.  Going forward, we face a monumental paradox.  On the one hand, we have to ensure that what is important is somehow preserved.  If we don’t preserve it, we are doing a disservice to generations to come; they won’t be able to learn from our mistakes as well as from the great breakthroughs and discoveries that have occurred.  On the other hand, we are creating so much information that may or may not be important, that we routinely keep everything.  If we continue along this path, which we will most certainly do, there is no question that we will require far superior filtering tools to manage that information.

- Social Networking
For better or worse, millions of people use a variety of social networking tools to inform their friends – and the world at large – about their activities, thoughts, and observations, ranging down to the mundane and the absurd.  Not only are people busily engaged in creating such content but each individual’s output may ultimately be received by dozens if not thousands of friends, acquaintances, or curious bystanders.  Just do the math.

- Interruptions
We’ve covered this topic many times (http://www.basexblog.com/?s=unnecessary+interruptions) but our prime target is unnecessary interruptions and the recovery time (the time it takes the worker to get back to where he was) each interruption causes, typically 10-20 times the duration of the interruption itself.  It only takes a few such interruptions for a knowledge worker to lose an hour of his day.

- Searches
50% of all searches fail and we know about the failure.  What isn’t generally recognized is something that comes out of our research, namely that 50% of the searches you think succeeded failed, but the person doing the search didn’t realize it.  As a result, that person uses information that is perhaps out of date or incorrect or just not the right data.  This has a cascading effect that further propagates the incorrect information.

- New technologies
We crave shiny new technology toys, those devices that beep and flash for our attention, as well as shiny new software.  Each noise they emit takes us away from other work and propels us further down Distraction Road.  It’s a wonder we get any work done at all.  Even tools that have become part of the knowledge workers’ standard toolkit can be misused.  Examples here include e-mail (overuse of the reply-to-all function, gratuitous thank you notes, etc.) and instant messaging (sending an instant message to someone to see if he has received an e-mail).

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.


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