Collaboration: The $588 Billion Problem

As much as e-mail, instant messages, blogs and their brethren technologies have helped knowledge workers better collaborate, interruptions and duplications derived from these forms of digital communication and content are overwhelming workers to the point of distraction.

The result is an egregious lack of productivity that may cost the U.S. economy $588 billion a year, according to a report by Basex, which has tabbed information overload as the “Problem of the Year” for 2008.

“Information Overload: We Have Met the Enemy and He is Us,” authored by Basex analysts Jonathan B. Spira and David M. Goldes and released Dec. 19, claims that interruptions from phone calls, e-mails and instant messages eat up 28 percent of a knowledge worker’s work day, resulting in 28 billion hours of lost productivity a year. The $588 billion figure assumes a salary of $21 per hour for knowledge workers.

The addition of new collaboration layers force the technologies into untenable competitive positions, with phone calls, e-mails, instant messaging and blog-reading all vying for workers’ time.

For example, a user who has started relying on instant messaging to communicate may not comb through his or her e-mail with the same diligence. Or, a workgroup may add a wiki to communicate with coworkers, adding another layer of collaboration and therefore another interruption source that takes users away from their primary tasks.

Beyond the interruptions and competitive pressure, the different modes of collaboration have created more locations through which people can store data. This makes it harder for users to find information, prompting users to “reinvent the wheel because information cannot be found,” Basex said.

Basex’ conclusion is that the more information we have, the more we generate, making it harder to manage.

While the research firm credited Microsoft, IBM, Intel, Morgan Stanley and other bellwethers for their attention to the attention management issues, its report offered no silver bullets for the knowledge worker, and said the information overload dilemma will only worsen in 2008.

However, Basex proposed several steps to mitigate information overload. With e-mail as the biggest offender, Basex said users can save time by not e-mailing someone, and then following up with a phone call or an instant message two seconds later (a no-brainer perhaps, but a trap many of us fall into).

Basex also said users must not combine multiple topics or requests in a single e-mail; make sure the subject clearly reflects the topic and urgency of the message; read their e-mails before sending to make sure they make sense; and will not hit reply-all unless necessary or reply with one-word e-mails such as “thanks.”

For instant messaging, Basex urged workers to show more patience and refrain from blasting multiple messages to coworkers if a response is not imminent. Also, users should keep their presence status up-to-date, so that people trying to reach them don’t waste their time.

For all communication, Basex wants to remind workers to be as explicit as possible because their readers are not mind readers. While the statement may seem like an obvious mantra, it is also easily forgotten.

Basex also urged users to choose the proper communication medium at the proper time. The researchers suggested instant messaging is better than the phone when multiple parties need to be on and do the talking, or there are a number of many-to-many conversations taking place.

Instant messaging is better than e-mail when an issue demands an immediate response, or trivial, such as lunch plans. E-mail trumps instant messaging when a note must be blasted out to multiple people and when a message must be archived.

Check out’s for more on IM and other collaboration technologies.

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