Search, knowledge reuse, and productivity

In his March 29, 2004 Alertbox, Productivity in the Service Economy, Jakob Nielsen states:

For intranets, we know that good design can double employee productivity. This estimate comes from our intranet usability testing, where people using the worst 25% of intranets required 99 hours per year to perform typical employee tasks, whereas people using the best 25% of intranets accomplished the same tasks in 51 hours per year.

While this is likely true, it assumes that employees actually use the Intranet to find information.

Over at Mathemagenic, Lilia presents some info in The high cost of not finding information: Reinventing is more fun than reusingthat supports the idea:

  • knowledge workers spend 15-35% of their time searching
  • only 50% searches are successful
  • 40% of corporate users can’t find information they need to do their job on their intranets

Lilia has, I believe, an excellent insight into the knowledge creation process: reinventing is more fun than reusing. Though I’ve not thought of it in terms of fun before, it is definitely more challenging and satisfying to create something than to simply use what someone else has created. The nature of knowledge work is to learn so you can create and apply new knowledge. Simply looking for and reusing existing “knowledge” (which in this explicit form is, I believe, really just information) to accomplish something is not so much knowledge work as it is an information assembly line.*

You can only truly learn and understand something if you are able to create it yourself.

*Having said this, it is important to note that some aspects of being a worker in an organization lend themselves very well to an assembly line mentality, for instance filling in time sheets, activity reports, travel vouchers, etc. But these types of activities are not so much value-added knowledge work as they are the price of doing business.

Presenting information: Paper vs. Presentation

A few days back, I wrote about Organizational Entropy as described in Shannon Entropy and Productivity: Why Big Organizations Can Seem Stupid by Dr. Richard Janow. In addition to the actual paper, in .pdf format, was (what I assume is) a .pdf’d PowerPoint version of the paper presented at the IEEE Engineering Management Society meeting in November 2003.

I am assuming that the presentation version was put together to be handed out to attendees at the meeting as some sort of “takeaway”, but this makes we wonder why not just hand out the paper itself? Many of the slides are simply the various equations or charts from the paper, with some descriptive text, and some were (crowded) bullet lists of various points from the paper.

Perhaps the slides were just a way to display the information for members of the audience to see – kind of like a professor filling up the chalkboard ahead of time instead of in realtime. Again, though, why not distribute the paper itself and let the audience use that as a reference.

My thoughts on this are somewhat prompted by comments and writings I’ve been exposed to – most notably Larry Prusak and Edward Tufte– and training I’ve received over the years related to public speaking and making presentations.

Last summer at the Army Knowledge Management conference, Larry Prusak was one of the keynote speakers on the last evening. He was preceded and followed by senior Army and Department of Defense executives, all of whom used a seemingly endless onslaught of densely packed Powerpoint slides. He opened with the following (somewhat paraphrased, but very close):

I took PowerPoint off my computer 4 years ago…. It is good for novices, I guess…. I know you don’t want to watch me read slides for an hour.

It is safe to say that of all the “lectures”, his was the most informative and most enjoyable to listen to.

Tufte has a lot to say about PowerPoint in his self-published, 27 page booklet The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint. From the introduction,

Alas, slideware often reduces the analytical quality of presentations. In particular, the popular PowerPoint templates (ready-made designs) usually weaken verbal and spatial reasoning, and almost always corrupt statistical analysis. What is the problem with PowerPoint? And how can we improve our presentations?

If you are familiar with his other works, you will recognize this as an extension of his overall teachings concerning effective visual presentation of data and information.

Thoughts on e-mail and productivity

Been doing some thinking about e-mail lately, specifically how to use it in the most effective way in an organizational setting. In my research I came across The Tyranny of Email on Ole Eichorn’s Critical Section.

Email is one of the greatest things the computer revolution has done for personal productivity. Used improperly, it can also hurt your productivity. This article discusses ways to use email effectively. Then it goes beyond that and talks about how to be productive, period.

In this post, and a followup appropriately titled Tyranny Revisited, Ole describes what I would call the “ideal” of how to use e-mail to be productive in the overall context of being productive, period.

Of course, the challenge is getting your organization to encourage, and the others you work with to adopt, these ideas and procedures for e-mail.

All in all, this is what I would call a must read. There are also numerous other links to responses and discussions based on the original post, with a lot of good ideas as well.