The cost of distraction

by alec on October 28, 2006

In New Technology Takes Mental Toll on Workers, Kevin Coughlin writes about the impact of cell phones, email, text messaging, and so on, on productivity.

E-mails, instant messages, cell phone calls, text messages, RSS feeds, Weblog updates, hundreds of TV channels, satellite radio, electronic billboards, even bottle caps — the information seems to come from every direction.

. . .

The technology market research firm International Data estimates 22.3 trillion e-mails will be sent this year. On average, workers must wade through about 40 every day.

That isn’t counting at least 3 billion instant messages relayed daily by America Online, Yahoo and Microsoft, says analyst Samir Sakpal of Frost & Sullivan international industry consultants. Another 81.2 billion text messages flashed onto Americans’ mobile phones last year, Sakpal says.

The numbers add up to a productivity paradox.

Electronic interruptions waste 28 billion man-hours per year in this country, at a cost of $588 billion, concludes a survey of more than 1,000 information workers by the consulting firm Basex.

He talks about a productivity paradox, but let’s take that one step further. Today’s information driven workplace and the attendant technology, is a fundamentally disempowering environment. How is it reasonable to expect any work of consequence to be accomplished in that environment?

Speaking from personal experience, my highest productivity is on airplanes — no internet, no cell phones, no text messages.

Our industry’s business model — the metering of minutes of usage — exacerbates the problem. In an environment where the model is to charge the customer for usage, there is no incentive to help the customer curb usage.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Mike Gotta October 28, 2006 at 10:57 am

Alec, I agree with the notion that additional communication channels and pervasive connectivity give rise to significant interruption issues that impact productivity. A focus on attention management is relevant and deserves serious attention by IT strategists. So I am in total agreement on the need to better manage and triage our signal/noise challenges.

But on the other hand, what has been missing in the discussion, or so it seems, is a focus on the good side of this (it's not all bad). If someone gets salient insight from me it that is necessary at the moment and it makes them more productive, then we are faced with a value decision. The problem is there is no good method in place to help parties make that value decision. Technology support is rudimentary so we often rely on social contracts between people (it's ok for Jane Doe to bother me because she's on my team but not John Doe because he's in marketing and I know he takes forever to get to the point).

What is an interruption to me or to you could be valid, but the information or conversation that results might factor into the closing of a deal on the part of the requestor (or some other net-positive event). If electronic interruptions waste 28 billion man-hours per year in this country, at a cost of $588 billion as Basex points out, what would we think if we discovered that those interruptions resulted in 30 billion man-hours of productivity gain (on the part of those doing the interrupting) and garnered 600 billion in revenue (greater than the costs to those of us being pestered)?

I don't have the answer. But we all seem to be going down this interruption-is-bad path when I believe the issue is more complex and involves a lot more than technology.

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Craig Roth October 31, 2006 at 1:48 pm

Interruptions are not always bad. Information workers have such a high degree of attention stress that it's easy to see only the dark side of interruptions, but there is a lot of research pointing to the other side. For example, a UC Irvine study on interruptions quoted one participant who described interruptions relating to his current task as “interactions” and only those that forced him to switch his task were deemed to be “interruptions”

I posted an entry on my blog called "Interruptions are Not Necessarily A Bad Thing" (http://knowledgeforward.wordpress.com/2006/10/04/interruptions-are-not-necessarily-a-bad-thing/) where I have an interesting quote from interruptions.net on the pure positive point of view of interruptions:

"Many organizations, therefore, purposefully introduce technologies into their workplace that deliver dynamic information and increase the frequency of interruptions. They hypothesize that increasing interruption frequency can increase the volume of useful information available about dynamic activities and consequently improve people’s coordination performance."

Also, check out the interruptions.net site for links to more than 500 studies on interruptions (most of which are negative on it of course).

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