Nathan’s first post

So, again… writing a first post to a new blog. Small step and all that, but it’s really the quintessential “new beginning”…

First I’m supposed to tell you who I am, so here goes: I’m Nathan Zeldes, an Applied Physicist turned IT Engineer. I’m a Principal Engineer at Intel, and for the past 12 years I’ve been driving R&D in the field of Computing Productivity, that fascinating no man’s land where our nice, crisp computer technology meets the unpredictable, demanding, sometimes vexing yet always precious wetware that is our user base. When I’m not working, I actually manage to program computers for fun, and I have a collection of computing history; you can have a peek at http://www.nzeldes.com .

Information Overload has been my arch-enemy for more than a decade; I identified it as a problem as early as 1995, when Windows-based email first arrived in my workplace and enabled people to send messages with large attachments to large lists with the click of a button. For many years I tried to solve this issue with “First generation” solutions – those involving training, indoctrination, tips and suggestions. It worked well, as far as it can, but there’s a limit to what it can achieve; so more recently I’m working on more advanced solutions, like the “No Email on Friday” pilot that has captured the public’s imagination recently. More on these later.

I define Information Overload, or Infomania as it is informally called at times, as the problem that today’s Information Intensity – the ubiquitous, rapid flow and exchange of information, communications, and the implicit tasks they impose – puts our knowledge workers and managers in a chronic state of anxiety that is exacting a heavy toll on their productivity as employees as well as on their personal well-being. This problem is caused primarily by the combination of two distinct phenomena: one is Queued incoming message overload, and the other is Distractions/interruptions. It is a universal problem: some years ago Fast Company magazine published an article about my work and I subsequently received email from about 100 organizations on four continents, including Fortune 500 giants and tiny partnerships, universities and high schools, municipalities, churches, government offices, charities… all wanting to hear more and sharing the same woeful tale.

I co-founded the Information Overload Research Group, whose blog this is, because I am really passionate about reducing the problem’s impact world wide – not only because that will allow people to be more effective at work, which it certainly will, but also because it will allow them to be happier, and spend more time with their families and doing the things for which they went to work in the first place.

Wish us luck!

6 Comments

  1. Great organization and blog! …Every morning, I arrive to about 200 e-mails and get a few hundred more before I go home. Most nights, I find myself checking e-mail all the way up until midnight just to get a head start on the next morning.

    I’m constantly apologizing for deleting e-mail from folks who call me to see if I received their e-mail. I’m in the news business — so it’s my job to process large amounts of information — but sometimes the amount feels inhuman.

    I’ll be following along here. Keep it up!

  2. Thanks, Bill! I certainly agree that first generation solutions are needed – my view is they may not suffice alone, hence the other category, but they are by no means superseded by it. In fact our “Quiet Time” pilot team demanded we throw in some etiquette training – they perceived the need.

    As to Interruptions being queued messages that get our attention – I must say I doubt it; an instant message is not queued if you ignore it, it just goes away (in most clients). Ditto for a coworker that pops into your cube. By contrast a SMS message does linger until opened, which makes it both an interruption and a queued message.

  3. Hi Nathan, I am very glad that I found IORG and I am looking forward to all the posts on this blog.

    I have recently started realizing that IO has a serious impact on my habits and how my ability to focus on a single task has diminished during the last year.

    Since I noticed that I started an independent research in order to determine what my problems are, and how I can deal with them. I took a few notes and wrote a draft article where I explain my findings. Unfortunately it is still a draft (so I started another thread, where I attempted to find out what is the cause of having so many unfinished projects, results are here: http://railean.net/index.php/2008/06/30/perfection_is_your_enemy_the_80_rule). I guess that I’ll just halt everything and post a summary of my findings after submitting this comment.

    I am extremely glad that there are others who can confirm that IO is a new problem, so I am not alone. I would love to join the group meetings, but unfortunately I am in a remote geographical area. Would it be possible to make movie clips of the meetings and share them on the Internet?

  4. Nathan – great stuff. I couldn’t make it to the conference from here in Western Australia, but we were represented there none the less.

    Email overload….

    We figured out there are two issues that need addressing:

    (1) Solving the problem before email hits your Inbox
    (2) Managing the activity that results after an email has actually hit your Inbox.

    Solving the first problem is really all about First Generation solutions in one guise or another which, in essence, involve:

    (a) an enterprise wide-social contract as to how email should be used. This can be reflected in an Email Code of Conduct (one page, maybe 10 points) endorsed by the Board of Directors crafted after taking in the views of key stakeholders and constituencies.

    (b) common sense. The elements of the internal social contract are positively adopted and then incrementally extended beyond the walls of the enterprise; using;

    (c) simple software tools: such as appended signatures detailing how you wish to transact via email; auto-completion of email subject lines with ‘at-a-glance’ understanding of what is being communicated therein and Action Required, Background Information, Closing Observations – type, ordered segments to emails which request activity of others

    (d) a bit of training to give effect to the above. Not much, it isn’t rocket science: 4 or 5 hours is enough.

    I am aware of Bill’s materials. The Hamster Revolution is an excellent contribution to the armamentarium of First Generation approaches.

    Solving the second problem is all about cognitive remapping.

    Consider: it took 70 years for the telephone to become a mainstream consumer technology, 15 years for the fax and 18 months for email. The design of email technologies, which continues to this day, has encouraged a cognitive mapping of Send/Receive/File in the people who use them (i.e., all of us). This is a nonsense.

    Even Bill Gates is on record as saying that email has created an entire generation filing clerks!

    99.99% percent of all email messages carry no value after the content has been communicated. At the point of reading an email communication it is what the reader needs to DO that becomes relevant. How is the resulting next action to be managed? What cognitive process should be followed to allow this next action to be achieved? The answer lies in the 4Ds: Ditch, Deal, Delegate, Decide.

    Please refer to http:look-see.orla.org to see what I mean.

    Thus, the challenge is to cognitively remap email users:

    OUT: Send/Receive/File
    IN: Ditch/Deal/Delegate/Decide

    This is a people-focussed, not technology-focused, activity thus what is needed is a safe-fail environment for people to bring about this change (making mistakes is how we learn, so minimise the ability for people to make mistakes but make it safe for them to make those mistakes – change can be scary for many people, inhibiting the willingness to change).

    This involves three things:

    (a) A new software environment which drives the 4Ds.

    (b) Low impact, high value learning to transition to the 4Ds guided by the software.

    (c) Proof that real value is being created by having made this change.

    We have been researching and developing the program which ties all this together. It’s called Orla (www.orla.org)

    There are other dimensions to information overload, of course. Your work on distractions is a fine example of this (and in to which I humbly defer). But to my mind it is a constant source of amazement that the email overload issue rumbles on when there is such a simple solution to this seemingly intractable problem. Orla provides a plug in for Outlook and a total of 8 hours of training, over the course of 30 days, then the problem is solved!

  5. Nathan,

    First off – Good Luck!
    I attended the IORG Research Group meeting in NY this week and would like to report that it was an information rich environment. IO is really a broad discipline to discover, discuss and develop solutions for. The discovery part is largely done, with virtually all of us feeling the pain of IO. The discussions and research continue and some solutions are beginning to emerge. The two types of IO you identify-queued messages and interruptions are a good way to classify the problem-although I believe it is difficult to keep them distinct. Perhaps interruptions are merely queued messages to which we pay attention. Therefore IO might be a process gone bad where there are too many “messages” (including but not limited to email, IM, etc.) seeking limited attention. This may be a simplistic way to look at it, but it serves two purposes. First it blurs the distinction between the categories and second it creates a yin/yang, supply/demand relationship that requires a holistic analysis. Think of IO as I/O (input/output). I thought that a very interesting question during the meeting this week was about the need to study input-process-output and look for ways that sequence could be optimized. Anyway, I am excited to look into the possibilities here.

    I would also like to discuss the “first generation” solutions. You seem to imply that these have lost their efficacy and therefore are escalating to other approaches. I would argue that first generation solutions need to be optimized, refreshed and reinforced to support any next generation initiatives. Without some first generation foundation that is adopted at the enterprise and even supply chain level any subsequent efforts will be sub-optimized. I would recommend extending and improving the training, tips etc. and making them a sustained, reinforced enterprise initiative that the next generation can ride on.

    As you might suspect, Cohesive Knowledge Solutions is a first generation solution provider. We do email efficiency and effectiveness, information organization and meeting effectiveness training. We do it right so the effect is dramatic and sustained as the best practices take root in the enterprise culture. Doing it right is more than signing people up and presenting them with the tips and best practices. A key part of our program is to create an “info-coaching” skill set so that individuals and teams and teams of teams form a support and “peer pressure” environment to sustain productive behavior. We also gain management support, develop internal marketing and key relationships between stakeholders (IT, HR, end users, etc.) We benchmark behavior before training and measure the results after training for as long as a client would like o measure the cultural change. We have a database of over 13,000 surveys that support our findings and several case studies of enterprise rollouts to prove our success. We are working with about 100 large companies in various industries to implement our Info-Excellence program.

    We look forward to participating and contributing to IORG. The problem is immense and universal. The awareness is at a peak level and the technical, behavioral and social solutions are emerging.

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