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From knowledge to distraction

No matter how interested you are in this article, you probably won't make it to the end in one reading. Instead, you will be interrupted by a phone call, 10 to 20 e-mails (whether you read them or not) and a few instant messages. Plus, a colleague might pop in. You could also become distracted and visit a Web site. Or you may not finish the article at all.

Such is the state of the knowledge workplace in 2007.

We try to do our work, but along the way information gets in the way. It's not unlike Tetris, where the goal is to keep the blocks from piling up. You barely align one, and another is already on its way. Information—e-mail, instant messages, text messages, Web pages, discussion forums, RSS feeds, wikis, Weblogs, phone calls, letters, magazines and newspapers—keeps piling up. In fact, we have become far more proficient at generating information than we are at managing it.

For companies with thousands of knowledge workers, information overload has become a major problem, costing them perhaps billions of dollars in lower productivity and hampered innovation. It has been shown to lower comprehension levels and skew the work/life balance.

Each of us loses an average of 2.1 hours per day thanks to unnecessary interruptions and recovery time. That costs the U.S. economy $588 billion per annum (The Cost of Not Paying Attention, Basex, 2005).

Some companies, including Intel and Hewlett-Packard, call this problem "infomania." Still others refer to the "infoglut," while my preferred term is simply "information overload."

E-mail is one prominent culprit, and its effectiveness has been reduced as more and more e-mails go ignored for days at a time. At a major financial services firm, the CEO has started making important corporate announcements by voicemail to ensure that the message gets through.

Earlier this year, 20 individuals gathered in Redmond, Wash., to focus on the problem. The meeting was led by Mary Czerwinski of Microsoft Research, Sheizaf Rafaeli of Haifa University and Nathan Zeldes of Intel. Attendees were invited based on their "proven track record" in studying and combating the problem of information overload and interruptions.

What we found should not surprise you.

The more information we have, the more we seem to generate and the less control we have over how we obtain it (or how it reaches us). Indeed, it appears as if the role of computer-based communications is being obscured, moving from an effective communications medium to a problem that needs to be managed.

In addition, the technologies we use to communicate are evolving at a faster pace than the corporate culture that must accept those tools into its midst. That puts employees practically on the defensive from technology: Just because an e-mail arrives shouldn't mean that one should drop everything to respond to it. Just because one can send an e-mail to all 10,000 employees in a division doesn't mean one should.

E-mail is far from the only cause. John Tang, from IBM Research, commented on "the tyranny of the convenient," which he defined as "the progression of traps that we as end users get led into regarding managing our attention." In other words, we

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