two women covering their ears
Workers are drowning in a sea of information, but is artificial intelligence the life-raft they need? PHOTO: m01229

A digital workplace can afford employees freedom and flexibility in ways never before possible — but it can also open the floodgates of information unlike anything we've ever seen.

The ease with which we can send a Slack message, edit a Google Document or update the company intranet threatens to drown employees in information-laden notifications. 

Digital Workplaces Grapple With Information Overload

The problem of information overload in the digital workplace is so real in fact, Slack established an AI and machine-learning division in 2016 called Search, Learning & Intelligence (SLI) with the aim of reducing the risk of “information avalanches.”

CMSWire spoke to Simon Tyrrell, chief product officer at New York City-based digital workplace software vendor LiveTiles, for his take on the threat. He explained that far from being just an annoyance, digital workplace noise can lead to disenfranchisement from digital tools altogether:

“With notification fatigue and information overload, the risk is that [employees] just ignore [the noise],” Tyrell said.

Tom Petrocelli, contributing analyst at Boston-based Amalgam Insights, concurred the problem was real. According to him, “the problem of information overload is real and needs to be addressed,” and machine learning is already being leveraged for that very purpose.

“Companies such as Microsoft and IBM are addressing them within email and by creating Slack-like products (i.e. Microsoft Teams). AI, more accurately machine learning and cluster analysis, is a key technology to finding the most important information that you need to look at right now. That’s why you see Microsoft infusing machine learning into Office 365 and IBM integrating Watson into IBM Verse,” Petrocelli said.

New Digital Workplace Tools Up to Old Tricks

Digital workplace tools like Slack and Microsoft Teams were invented to streamline the digital workplace, but have ironically joined email in contributing to the noise.

The reality is modern workplaces, even those only partially digitalized, are built to chop conversations up into bite-sized chunks. The quick chat in the team meeting room is now 28 individual Slack messages, and the project-tracking whiteboard on the office wall is now a constantly-evolving Trello board. As for emails, they still exist, it’s just that some of them take the form of emoji-sprinkled direct message conversations.

Petrocelli and Tyrrell agreed on the impact of these new digital workplace tools, with the former explaining that, “Slack [and similar products], are ironically having some of the same problems that they were supposed to alleviate.”

“Persistent chat products add to the overload issue. If it is layered on top of enterprise social networks, email and instant messaging, then it will only add to the number of messages that a knowledge worker is trying to consume each day,” he said.

Tyrrell touched on the same points, claiming the noise emanating from digital workplace tools is no different to the information exploding from whatever enterprise tools are operating in the background:

“Other enterprise systems [make the situation worse, when you take into account] whatever the ERP and project management system is throwing at you, and then you have the public-facing [sources of information and notifications] like LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, RSS news feeds. There is just so much information [to deal with],” Tyrrel remarked.

Take a Leaf Out of Facebook’s Book?

The consensus is that AI will — in part — solve the problem of digital workplace noisiness. But exactly how collaboration platforms will leverage AI is another question entirely.

Kasibhatla Narasimha, managing director at San Antonio, Texas-based global marketing services firm Harte Hanks, believes social media has already set the standard:

“AI and machine learning is being heavily leveraged in the social networking worlds, where the 'machine' presents relevant information to you and as time goes by and the algorithm consumes more and more data, it 'learns' better,” Narasimha told CMSWire.

However, Narasimha cautioned not to get too excited about this approach. While social networks like Facebook and Instagram present content based on AI-powered algorithms, they do so on an individual level, choosing to display different content to different people, even if they both follow the same sources of content. 

So, Narasimha asked, “what happens if everything becomes machine-curated and no two people see the exact same true picture? What does this mean for the workplace, for agreements and commitments, for contracts and so on?”

Slack's Goal to Automate Noise Filters

Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield recently stated one of the goals of Slack’s SLI division is to “make sense of the whole corpus [of information in Slack] and have that improve over time, ideally in a way that doesn’t require any manual input [from users].”

“The computers will do it all; people can just communicate the way they would normally communicate. You could imagine an always-on virtual chief of staff who reads every single message in Slack and then synthesizes all that information based on your preferences, which it has learned about over time. And with implicit and explicit feedback from you, it would recommend a small number of things that seem most important at the time,” Butterfield said.

In other words, Slack is not just aiming for an AI-assisted solution, but rather an AI only solution to digital workplace noise pollution.

Unsupervised Artificial Intelligence Is No Solution at All

Not everyone in the field of AI and digital workplace management is keen on Butterfield’s proposed AI-only solution.

As Narasimha pointed out, the solution isn’t just how to control the information that gets through, it’s also about showing the right pieces of information to those who need to see it. 

Dr. Marty Trevino, chief data and analytics officer at Hanover, Md.-based Red Alpha Consulting agreed.

“The term 'overload,' while applicable, is not an adequate term to encapsulate the problem as the opposite is also true — not getting sufficient or the right information on a topic is also an issue,” Trevino told CMSWire.

“We are at the precipice of a new age of Augmented Intelligence (AI) which will inform and augment strategic human decision. Data, analytics tools, platforms and visualization techniques are, in the end, merely pieces of a bigger puzzle that must also include intelligent and flexible organizational design and a fuller understanding of the human decision-making process. Without all these elements working in concert, we will not achieve the full potential and promise of next-generation Augmented Intelligence,” he continued.

Tyrrell of LiveTiles gets the final word here:

“[The notion] that the machines will do everything is not going to lead to great solutions. AI is not empathetic, it doesn’t understand human emotion, so although AI is useful, you need to have humans in the loop,” Tyrrell said.

The only problem is, how exactly are humans — AI assisted or not — supposed to stem the relentless flow of information between digital workplace workers? Over to you, Slack, Microsoft, IBM, et al.