Does anyone really want to un-collaborate?

Here is the headline of a recent article: Collaboration: The $588 Billion Problem.  The tag-line reads “E-mail, instant messaging, and blog reading are costing the economy billions in lost productivity, new research finds.”   The report from Basex further states that information overload is the “Problem of the Year” for 2008.

Doom and gloom baby, that always sells reports.  They know CIO’s will snap up that research and be able to kill all those little pet projects people are working on under the guise of ‘lost productivity enablers.’

Do you really think that the new collaboration tools we use everyday are costing us that kind of money in lost productivity?  I don’t think it’s very useful to say what is lost in productivity without also netting it out against what is gained.  Who wants to go back to a time before there was IM, blogs, wikis, etc.  Let’s look at some of the assumptions in the article.

The costs that authors Jonathan B. Spira and David M. Goldes computed 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.   Now my issue with this statement is what do they think is the alternative?  How many knowledge workers could even complete their job without interacting with co-workers?  Is it unreasonable to think that about one quarter of your work day is spent answering and requesting information from co-workers?  I don’t think so. 

Imagine there were no collaborative tools and you had to talk to co-workers the old-fashioned way; you had to actually get up and go to their desk or pick up the phone.  Is that not a disruption of their time?  If you decided to go see them later and put off what you were working on in the meantime, then wouldn’t that also be considered lost productivity on your part?  If you could get the answer you need in a relatively short time-frame by pinging someone with an IM or email it may be a disruption on your co-workers part, but it also vastly increases your productivity by keeping you progressing your task.  Even better you might find what you need posted on an internal wiki, which means you’ve leveraged the effort someone took to publish that information and no one gets distracted and your work gets done with minimal detours.

One point they make that I will wholeheartedly support is the plea to not send out a reply all when your only comment is “Thanks!”.  I’ll add my favorite pet peeve to their list – stop with the reply all when you’re just pointing out “Why are you emailing this d-list?  You’ve got the wrong group!” 

Information overload isn’t a new problem.  It’s been talked about for years now but we also have to remember that we have a lot better tools to manage the vast amounts of data we need to keep tabs on.  First of all, search technology has advanced to the point that finding information buried in all of your emails and files is as simple as running a web-search.  Other collaborative tools like wikis and tagging help keep information much more accessible as well.  Remember when all your project files were stored in folders on the server but you had to remember which of the hundreds of folders it was in?  “Now were those functional specs stored under the folders by phase of the project, or by the author, or was it placed in that miscellaneous FDD folder?”  Probably yes to all three of those options because everyone did it their own way either deliberately or by accident.  Now even if someone misfiles a document it’s not lost or subject to a 15 minute hide and seek game to retrieve it.

After reading this article and all of the suggested behaviour changes they feel are contributing to this so called ‘lost productivity’ I can’t help but feel like this article is more about how to communicate effectively using collaborative tools and not so much about how we’re losing billions of dollars in productivity thanks to the rise or abuse of them.  Could proper use help increase productivity even more?  You bet, but I still don’t see how it’s actually costing us.

So, is information overload the “Problem of the Year” for 2008?  I like to read the WSJ every morning with my coffee, and judging the number of doom and gloom articles that seem to multiply each day, if this is our biggest problem of the year I’d be mighty surprised and relieved at the same time.


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