Gates Warns on Information Overload – Structured and Unstructured Working

Beach Stones

So even Mr Gates has noticed that information overload may be a problem.

The news release states:

"It’s overwhelming," Gates said Thursday at the software company’s ninth annual CEO Summit. "Nobody’s paid to do search or just find information. At the end of the day you’re paid for designing a new product, having a satisfied customer and doing that with the minimum amount of time, the minimum amount of people."

And then is goes into doing a little bit of a sales pitch about technology. My own view is that technology has a way to go in order to enable people to manage the mountains of information that is given them every day. For me though the key issue is about training the individual and the team.

Is Technology the answer to the problem?

My last blog was asking a question of technology, whether it was really tackling the right issues when it comes to collaboration. I did go on a bit of a rant about the way that technology tends to devalue a process while automating it, but fundamentally I still think that technology is answering the wrong question.

In either of these two things, information management and collaboration, the real issue is the working practices that individuals go through. People work in lots of different ways, and build their working practices around their personality type.

At present the technology world seems to be really nice to people who are structured in their working, for those of us who are naturally semi-structured workers it’s OK, for people who are naturally completely unstructured in there working the technologies don’t help them at all. As a semi-structured worker I know that I am effective when I follow certain processes which for me have been technology enabled, but these are structured processes and not ones that I do naturally. I need to be told why I need to do a process. Sue is the other way around, she is a structured worker and needs to be told to stop doing a process. I have a friend who is completely unstructured and naturally kicks back against anything that looks like a process.

Email kills the unstructured worker. A structured worker looks at a list of emails and does one of two things. They either starts at the top and work down, or they use a two phase approach whereby they look for the important emails first. An unstructured worker may start at the top and work down but after about five emails will be bored of that method and move to another method, and then to another, and then to another. these people end up with hundred of unread email. Take the way that systems deal with calendaring, for instance. It’s an appropriate thing to give a structured worker control of their diary by enabling them to make a decision on every appointment sent to them. This is probably not an appropriate way to deal with an unstructured worker. It would be much better for the system to tell the unstructured worker what their appointment for the day are, to give them a choice over whether to accept an invitation or not puts them into a place which they can’t handle particularly well.

Why should IT care about unstructured workers?

IT should care about unstructured workers – because they are the future.

Collaboration Overview


I don’t normally do straight link blogs but in this instance I’m going to make an exception.

Michael Sampson has written a great set of notes from “Creating a Collaboration Strategy: Aligning Solutions to Business Needs

Sometimes someone writes something that is music to my ears (eyes), and this is one of them. Collaboration is one of the areas of office productivity that I think IT has a long, long way to go. I think the reason we haven’t got their yet is because we haven’t done enough to understand the soft-skills issues of common office/team activities – meetings, document review, etc.

We need an 'original content' filter

One of the biggest problems I have when reading through blogs is that I get the same information and the same content many time over. That’s because lots of people keep their blog statistics high by reproducing someone else’s content with little or no original content of their own.

It would be great to filter out ‘none original’ content, actually it’s becoming essential.

I don’t like it when people repeat things to me in my normal life, so I don’t see why I should put up with it in my IT life.

The always-on social impacts

My friend Steve has just posted a really interesting article on the business case for PDA’s, but most importantly the impacts of the Always on Society.

It’s very interesting observing the social impacts of the working environment that people are forced to work in. I wrote the other day about the general working environment and it’s impact personally on my productivity. (Today I am working from home and it’s Friday s feel great). But it’s a really interesting thing to observe how other people interact with technology and the various connection infrastructures that they have.

Sue, my wife, is an interesting example. She works as a Pastoral Worker for our church (a voluntary position, but no less demanding) and the way that she interacts with the various connection infrastructures is fascinating.

When we come home from holiday, or even a short break, Sue has established a routine that drives me nuts, but is actually no different to the way so many people interact with their connection infrastructures. On films people returning from holiday, walk through the door with bags in hands, turn to each other, have a big hug and say something like ‘it’s great to be home’. Not in my house, are you kidding. As soon as Sue gets through the door she picks up the post and goes straight to the phone which will inevitably be flashing with a number of messages. These messages will be the few messages that have been left in the last 24 hours, because she has already phoned it every day while we have been away. And while she is walking around with the hands-free phone listening to the messages she walks into the study turns the PC on and sits down. She then goes through the post while the PC is booting up (still listening to messages) and down-loading the emails. She then goes through the emails. As a man this is infuriating because I am, of course, completely superfluous to this activity (there is nothing worse for a man than to feel redundant). So what do I do, I go and get the bags in from the car of course.

The thing is, these messages and emails can be anything. It’s not primarily personal correspondence that she is dealing with here, it’s primarily work related. And because she is a pastoral worker these messages can be anything and generally include births, deaths, sickness, upset, separation; anyone of the full spectrum of life’s highs and lows.

Yet, just because it is there, she needs to reconnect herself. She knows it drives me mad, and she knows that for me it marks a stark and sudden end to a holiday that I would rather keep going for a few hours.

I don’t take a laptop on holiday, not because I will fell the need to stay connected, because I know Sue will need to.

The other thing she has is the need to read text messages as soon as they arrive, wherever whenever, even if it’s late at night. For me, it’s more likely that the message itself will spoil my nights sleep, for Sue, the knowledge that there is some information that she doesn’t have will definitely spoil her nights sleep.

Now, there is some logic to all of this. And I’m not saying I’m right and she is wrong. I’m just saying we are different. For Sue, she would rather get all of the information in small doses. Just because she has the information doesn’t mean she worries about it. For me, I’d rather not have the information at all, because I do worry about it. Not sure whether that’s a man-woman thing, or whether it’s our different personalities. What it does mean is that she sneaks away while we are on holiday to phone home and listen to the messages and that definitely troubles me, because it feels a bit like she is behaving like an addict would. She only does it because she knows it winds me up, I’m sure.

Anyway, at today’s level of technology there is a certain level of disconnection. If we are camping in Northern Scotland there is no mobile signal and I’m not driving to a phone box so she can listen to the messages. But those days are rapidly coming to a close. So what will it take for us to fully understand what we are doing to ourselves in being this connected and when will we understand how to train people how to deal with his level of connectivity. How do you train someone to turn off a mobile phone? How do you train someone to know that stuff happens and to relax in it? How do we change the technology so that we get the really important stuff and not the dross? I have a colleague who sends everything to me as ‘urgent’ and it’s not. One of these days he’ll send me something really important and I’ll miss it.

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