By some estimates, data in the workplace doubles every 18 months. And being able to process and make sense of this data has become an increasing challenge as updates and notifications come in from all directions — on the desktop, from mobile devices and soon from wearable devices as well.
What does the future hold? Will we find ways to cope with the deluge of information overload? With these questions in mind, I reached out to Alan Lepofsky, vice president and principal analyst, collaboration software at Constellation Research, to get his insights on what we can expect going forward.
David Lavenda: People are being overloaded by information at work. It’s getting harder to stay on top of email and all the other pieces of information that people need to do their jobs. The situation doesn’t seem sustainable. What’s the prognosis?
Alan Lepofsky: We hear a lot about email overload, or information overload but I prefer the term input overload. The problem is not so much the amount of information coming at us, but rather the spread of information across so many different input sources. We have email, chat, text, social media, phone calls, personal conversations — the list goes on and on. What we need are ways to organize and prioritize the information that is available to us.
The way we will do that is via a combination of manual practices and digitally assisted recommendations. The next generation of productivity and communications software needs to learn our patterns and preferences and then decide what to show us and when. Those assistants will also make recommendations on what actions to take and in some cases even automate those actions.
DL: There are an increasing number of tools vying for workers’ attention. How do you see workers being able to find the information needle in the data haystack?
AL: I often refer to this as 'yet another tool' syndrome. There're two directions this can go: 1. we can reduce the number of tools by adding core functionality into the most commonly used systems, or 2. we can aggregate information from multiple sources into combined experiences. These aggregated experiences can be streams, dashboards or what I call digital canvases. Aggregating information reduces the spread, but does cause clutter. So these streams or canvases require excellent filtering mechanisms. Examples of filters could be time, location, customer, topic, or in the future … mood or other health characteristics.
DL: Developments in cloud and mobile have made it easier to subscribe to more business information sources. How real is the impact of mobile and cloud on business today and how much is hype? What is the actual impact on today's worker facing an array of mobile and cloud applications? On productivity, stress and getting the work done?
AL: For the average worker, cloud is not that noticeable. Most people don’t know or care where their email, files, contacts, etc. are stored. What they care about is getting access to them anytime, anywhere, from any device. Cloud empowers that, but most people don't (need to) realize it. More significant is mobile access. It's important to point out that mobile access does not just mean phones or tablets. Mobile means being able to get access to information while in transit. It's a new way of working, not a device. With greater access to the tools and content, employees can feel more confident in their ability to get work done.
DL: As we progress towards the Digital Workplace, more information sources vie for our attention. Will there be a paradigm shift of how we get information? What will be the dominant design for filtering tools that help us make sense of this influx?
AL: As mentioned above, digital assistants will play a large part in helping us filter, sort and prioritize the information that is vying for our attention. I don't think the digital assistants will be making decisions for us (for the next few years), but they are able to link together vast amounts of information across multiple systems in ways that is very challenging to do manually.
A perfect example is how Google Now is able to provide information about weather, local attractions, package delivery, airline information and many other things by linking together information from your email, calendar and even web searches.
DL: In 2008, Nicolas Carr said that “Google is making us stupid” because we don’t need to know anything, just where to look for it. How does this observation impact how business gets done in the future? How likely are we to ‘rage against the machine' or ply it to make us smarter?
AL: I don't think there's any turning back now in regards to how digital tools are part of helping us get work done. What we need to think about is how comfortable we are trading our personal information for digital assistance. How far will people go? How far should they go? How much should vendors know about you, and what will they do with that information?
DL: Matt Ridley in the "Rational Optimist" posits that in order to prosper, we will need to specialize into increasingly narrower niches of expertise. Do you agree or do you envision a breakthrough in information management? Who are the most likely tech players to play a dominant role in the future of information management? What is the role of tech ecosystems in solving this problem?
AL: In the past, employees were recognized for the specific services or information they were experts in. The old saying was knowledge is power. People liked to hold on to what they knew, fearing that if others could do what they could do they could be replaced. Today people are much more open to sharing. The most successful companies are ones where all employees have access to the skills and knowledge of everyone else. It's almost like a colony of bees where everyone works together towards a common goal.
Today, in just a few seconds anyone can get any answer to almost any question, translate text from one language to another, find a picture or video, or contact people anywhere on the planet … but that does not make people experts. Take for example websites with medical information. Just because you can read about something, does not make you a doctor. One of the biggest annoyances for medical professionals is having a patient come in and say “The other night on the Internet I read ….” On the other hand, “How-To” videos on YouTube can be a wonderful way to learn almost anything from cooking to tying a tie.
To get back to your question, I don’t think any one vendor will be the key to information management, but if I had to pick one I’d say currently Google has access to the most content while Facebook has the most information about people and their relationships.