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 – Automate or Reevaluate

Celtic Cross


  • To work together, especially in a joint intellectual effort.
  • To cooperate treasonably, as with an enemy occupation force in one’s country.

One of the things I have pondered in my many years experience in the collaboration technology arena is whether collaboration should simply automate the ways that humans already collaborate – meetings, conferences, etc. or whether our role is to find a completely new mechanism for working together, especially in a joint intellectual effort.

This afternoon I have watched this video on Microsoft’s Office Communicator. The Office Communicator technology seems to be another piece of technology aimed at extending the reach and improving the experience of our normal communications. It’s about video conferencing for people who are too lazy to walk to the next office; and enables people to use the phone without putting their mouse down (only kidding, I know there is more to it than that ). But it’s not about a radically different mechanism for working together. If you think about white-boarding applications they are only extending the reach of what humans have been doing with a piece of paper (or wood, or slate) for thousands of years. I‘m not saying that this technology hasn’t got value, but it’s not really delivering a new or richer way of working together.

Let’s think about one of the other things that we do in the standard office – meetings. Technology has enabled to extend the reach of meetings massively, especially with teleconferences. But my own view is that teleconferencing systems have been to meetings, what office application have been to the document. They have increased the volume of them to unbearable level and massively reduced their value. We are not working together on these things, we are not collaborating, we are wasting people’s time. I personally dread the phrase “Graham we just need a quick teleconference to chat about issue xyz”. When I here this phrase my heart sinks because I know that I am going to be siting on a call for at least 30 mins, or more normally an hour, adding about as much value as a slug does in my garden. This is where the human predicament is fascinating, because we all know this to be true and yet we all do it, over and over again. In the past, when meetings cost us lots of money to host (travel, hotels, etc.) we made sure that the value was high, we did our homework, we put together an agenda and a plan. We made sure that we completed our actions because we knew that other people were investing in being their.

By making meetings easier and cheaper we have decreased their productivity and hence decreased the value. The worse thing about this being that we are wasting peoples most precious asset – time.

Perhaps there is hope though, a long time ago people had to invest lots of time and effort in producing presentations. They had to think about them weeks in advance so that the material could be reproduced and the slides created. In investing this effort people made sure that the quality was high. Then along came the laptop, the video projector and PowerPoint. Now presentation were cheaper and easier to do the value went into terminal decline. But now there is a ground-swell calling for an increase in the value of presentations characterised by the like of Cliff Atkinson and Beyond Bullets. We are on the same curve with email too, I think, with people like Dave Allen and GTD.

Can we avoid this cycle with collaboration, I don’t know. Perhaps it’s just inbred, it’s something that we humans have to go through.

But here’s the real question. Is automating and extending the reach of the interactions we already undertake really what we want to do.  Is that really all the IT is good for – automation. I’m not sure I know what the other ways we could collaborate are, but I’m sure there are plenty of people out their with good ideas. I do know, though, that collaboration is about work together, especially in a joint intellectual effort and that educators already know that we all learn in different ways. I also know that the vast majority of our collaboration effort is focussed on text based collaboration, on documents and the like. But how does a kinaesthetic learner participate in that type of collaboration, and where does that leave the auditory learners. If each of the collaboration techniques only appeal to one of the learning styles then only a few people in any collaboration are going to truly collaborate.

here’s n example for you. My son Jonathan is dyslexic (don’t you think it’s a bit sick that we use a word that is so bizarrely spelled to describe something that involves difficulties which include an inability to spell) his particular difficulty is with writing and spelling. Yesterday was Parents Evening at school, I dread these occasions, for two reasons. The first, but secondary, reason is that parts of me regress to my own childhood and I sit there in front of these teachers as if I am 12 again. The second, but primary, reason is that I get so frustrated with the way that our society is so stacked towards the ability to write and spell. Every teacher says something like “It’s great to have Jonathan in the class, he is so bright, he answer questions and really contributes, but (and here it comes) I have had to give him this negative mark because I couldn’t read his answers in the exam.” In other words Jonathan is valued by us but not by the education system. This is an extreme example, but we do the same with collaboration technologies. The person who initiates the collaboration gets to choose the collaboration (learning) style whether it is the most appropriate mechanism for the others in the collaboration or not. That is really where I see that technology has a massive role to play – bridging the gap between the collaboration (learning) styles. Draw me a 2D diagram of a building and I can picture it, draw Sue the same thing and it means nothing, give her a written explanation and she can see it. Ask Jonathan to write an explanation of something and you won’t be able to read it, ask him to do a drawing or even carve it in wood and you will get something very different. Surely we can do something.

Why don’t we hear anything about learning styles in business? Because we don’t regard collaboration as learning?

As a last remark, IT will have truly achieved something when at every level in education we overcome peoples learning difficulties and enable assessment on the basis of peoples knowledge whatever their learning style; rather than assessing them on their ability to draw lines and circles in a way that a teacher understands as words.

Even more on Device Form Factor v Cars Form Factor

Artistic Creation by Emily & Daddy

My friend Ian over at seventec sent me an email complaining that in my article Form Factor Psychology v Car Psychology stated:

  • Some people will use a big desktop with a big screen, because some people drive a Range Rover.

His complaint was that he drives a Range Rover, but doesn’t own a desktop.

Now let me make myself clear here. I was drawing the parallel between the car industry and the IT industry as a whole rather than being specific. I definitely wasn’t saying that every Range Rover driver should have a big desktop although it has to be said that Ian hardly has the smallest lightest laptop on the planet .

Having said that though, the broader personal characteristics that our choice of car represent may well be the same as the ones we use to make a choice in our IT. I looks like Steve thinks so, and I’ve made comment about myself also.

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.

Cognitive Overload – I don't get this at home

Bolton Abbey

Today is one of my ‘working in the office’ days rather than working from home. It’s been over a week and I had forgotten how difficult some things can be in this environment.

I am currently trying to listen into a teleconference, it’s not very load and there are a number of people in a room talking, sometimes all at once. Here in the office the person next to me is on the phone, in front of me is a small meeting area where another group of people are also on a teleconference with a speaker phone. Behind me are two more individuals in an open conversation. This keyboard I am using is not the quietest either.

Result – cognitive overload. I should be able to listen in to his call without giving it my utmost attention but I can’t. I even find myself having to close my eyes in order to cut some things out. it’s a good job I don’t have to contribute much to this meeting. I definitely don’t get this at home that’s for sure.

The Seven Day Coffee Reduction Plan

My Coffee Mug

I have now done seven days running on only one cup of coffee a day.

I have never been a fan of ‘cut down’ plans, but this time it seems to be working for me. there were just too many occasions when I wanted to sit with a coffee for me to completely cut the pleasure out all together. But one a day if OK, as long as it stays at that level.

Let’s see how much further I can go. Perhaps I might even develop a habit. Seven days down, thirty three to go.

The Power of the Corporate Event – The Relationship Event


I have just watched one of the videos from (Into the heart) and was nearly in tears seeing a boy joining Bono on the stage. Why is that?

  • Is it because I was jealous? No
  • Is it because I thought the boy was special? Sort of
  • Is it because I was empathising with the boy? Definitely.

There is something inherent in the human nature that bonds us together. I don’t know this little boy, he’s from somewhere around Chicago I suspect, but that’s all I know about him. But I have far more in common with him than not, we have a bond of humanness. This boy could easily have been my own son, Jonathan, or even me when I was younger. Both of us would have been buzzing from the experience, as I am sure this boy was.

The whole u2log is a real testament to the way in which modern blogging can bring together communities of interest in a new way, but really only reflecting our human need to connect and relate. We were made to relate.