Information Overload Is Nothing New

Last Updated Jan 3, 2008 4:23 PM EST

How many people store a letter opener in the top drawer of their desk these days? O.K., we haven't done a survey, but we're pretty confident that the number would be relatively low. It used to be that you spent a significant chunk of time each day sliding that letter opener through the top of envelopes from a variety of business contacts. Then you checked your answering machine messages, there were perhaps dozens since you left the office the previous day from people in different time zones.

Technologies like email, video conferencing and instant messaging have replaced much of the letter writing and answering machine messages with a more efficient form of information exchange. However, people nonetheless lament the time wasted on misuse of these technologies. They even suggest that the onset of these technologies in the average workplace has actually caused more time to be wasted.

The Basex report about productivity losses resulting from misuse of email, blogs and IM released a couple of weeks back has received plenty of attention from The New York Times, eWeek, CNN, our own BNET blog, and countless others. Its authors have a point, that people do exhibit certain behaviors when using these technologies that result in spending their own time and that of coworkers on unnecessary communication that doesn't provide any new or useful information. Basex called this information overload "The Problem of the Year."

However, some questions must be asked.

1. Is the "wasted" time and productivity connected to the new technologies? Do the lost work hours which Basex provocatively prices at $650 billion a year reflect a new type of productivity loss for companies, or is it just the same wasted time carried out over different technologies? Seems to us that the term water-cooler talk came from somewhere, and wasn't being subjected to a team member's personal phone calls at work a little more distracting than the steady clicking of the keyboard in the midst of a personal IM session? When people weren't reading blogs, there were magazines, newspapers and newsletters to keep them from their work. Let's nopt lay it all at the feet of progress.

2. What does this $650 billion in losses actually represent? The number sounds impressive and will have bored or bottom-line obsessed CEOs asking "How much of that loss belongs to our company?" But the number is essentially just an idea of how many hours are spent on these diversions and inefficiencies multiplied by the average knowledge worker's salary. Management already knows the average worker's level of productivity, if that were to increase by the 28 percent that Basex says is lacking per week, wouldn't management have to pay more to keep that exceptionally efficient worker in their employ?

3. Is it possible for workers to be engaged and productive for 8 hours each day and five days each week, or are these distractions and superfluous conversations somewhat necessary? Essentially, the point here is that workers will get frustrated with tasks and will lose focus at times, and, inconveniently for management, these times do not fit neatly into twice-daily 15-minute breaks. While it is, of course, good to minimize inefficiencies and figure out how to keep workers focused, we can't pretend that we will eliminate them altogether or even get close.

4. Are all of the behaviors they point out actually wasting time, or are there providing benefits that are just more difficult to ascertain? Behaviors like using "Reply to All" on many emails or sending a reply just to say "thanks" can be seen as a drain on the time of the sender and the receiver, but they could also be greasing the wheels of interaction and collaboration in the office, familiarizing team members with people with whom they don't normally work, and creating a more cordial, collegial tone among teams. This is of course very difficult to determine, which underlines again the importance of taking these reports for what they are, a beginning of the discussion, not a verdict.