The Digital Workplace – the problem with information work

The 1st part of this series gave a brief introduction into what the Digital Workplace is and why new approaches to managing information and designing information work are desperately needed. This post will look at the overwhelming problems organization have today because of information mis-management.

Organizations of all sizes and sectors are quick to admit that they have a problem with information. Few, however, can name the root-causes of the problem or quantify its size, reach and impact. In fact, most organizations just take information related problems, such as information overload, for granted (i.e. as a problem they just have to live with) and think of it as an issue with only minor relevance for the business.

They couldn’t be more wrong!

In order to realize the full impact that the problems with information have on a business, one has to look at the very nature of work in organizations today. The last post gave some insight into this and the report will elaborate on this in more detail. In short it can be said that information work constitutes the most relevant kind of work in organizations today both from a quantitative and qualitative perspective. There is proof that information and its flows are the number one factor to enable a business achieve its strategy and goals. Yet, information work is probably the most underestimated and worst managed kind of work that ever existed in organizations.

“If the CEO only knew …”

For this whitepaper we looked at more than 2 dozens studies available on the market that cover problems in information work form different perspectives. And while information related problems come in many shapes, the issue of “looking for information” seems to be the one best analyzed by research. In fact, “searching” in all its forms is the most ubiquitous activity that information workers perform in their jobs.

Being very generic, we often don’t recognize “searching” as such. And it is not only “using a search engine” (or any other kind of navigation mechanism for that matter) but includes emailing or asking around for information, assigning someone else to gather information, checking whether the version you have is the current one, trying to locate that email, browsing the web, etc.

Productivity is affected in two main ways by issues related to this omnipresent task:

  • time loss in searching and finding information (and related effects such as employee frustration by long and unsuccessful searches)
  • quality loss by not having the right information, where, when and in the appropriate format and detail needed (e.g. incomplete, inaccurate, untimely, too complex, … information) for the respective task (and therefore for instance making a bad decision)

This has drastic effects on employees, managers, organizational performance and even the economy as a whole. While the report will present many (rather shocking) facts on this, I want to use just one analogy here: if we take the time that the average information worker is wasting in “looking for information” and spread it out over the time span of a year, then from October 1st to December 31st he would be doing nothing else but searching for information.
I wonder how many CEOs would think of this as an acceptable situation if its full impact would be known to them?

And to make things even worse, “searching” is of course only one of many problematic areas in information work. It can be estimated that activities like for instance recreating already existing information, having to deal with different versions of a document or secondary effects due to wrong or not up to date information will often turn out to have even more negative impacts on employee productivity than even that of searching.

As already noted, information problems of course don’t exist in isolation but directly affect those who use the information and their respective work results in mayor ways. Information problems therefore also substantially affect the performance of an organization itself. Some sources estimate this impact to be as high as 29% of the overall performance.

“How can it be, with all our IT…?”

Lack of awareness is one of the key root-causes for information related performance issues. As a “mass phenomena” information work is relatively new and current work practices are highly immature and largely unmanaged. Information work is also distinctly different from the dominant forms of work of the past and therefore has to be approached in a different manner. For instance, even most information systems are still based on the logics and restrictions of paper handling instead of the possibilities of digital media. The same goes for current approaches to leadership which typically are still based on industrial age principles. These often fully contradict the work reality and requirements of information based work.

Being so fundamental in nature, these problems of course cannot be addressed by simply introducing an intranet, a collaboration platform, social media or any other tool. It is the organization and the “way of working” that has to adapt in order to stop wasting time and resources.
Unfortunately, problems with information aren’t even on the agenda in most organizations, as they turn a (giant) blind eye on them, so far.

Current information management systems don’t come to the rescue, either, as the way technology is designed and put to use today is also part of the problem. Some of the key shortcomings in this area include:

  • Lack of logical, enterprise-wide architectures
  • No clear distinction between tool and business need
  • Users not educated in information management
  • Technology not embedded into the way of working

 

The report will give more details on these points and their importance in addressing the problems in information work.

 

The final part of this mini-series of blog posts will look at the building blocks of a Digital Workplace. It will be published here on Monday, Oct. 10th.

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