The Digital Lifestyle and the Constant Flood of Information Is Damaging the Productivity of Knowledge Workers. Our Experts Have Become Willing Victims of Technology, Not the Beneficiaries of It

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Is over-communication damaging our productivity? To tackle that question, we first need to define what we mean by "information" and "knowledge" as there is confusion between the two terms.

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Information work is primarily about speed, accuracy and efficiency. Information workers need "just enough" of the right type of information at the right time to do their jobs. They are like farmers working to predictable cycles. Imagine a clerk in a call centre, taking enquiries over the phone, looking up relevant data on the computer and processing that information. Communications technology can transform that type of job by boosting efficiency.

Knowledge work, on the other hand, is about effectiveness. It is about the quality of decisions and actions. Think of it like detective work: building up small pieces of a jigsaw and looking for clues, ultimately in search of patterns and meanings that you don't initially know exist. Knowledge workers are hunter-gatherers; they are constantly on the lookout for the possibilities of the unexpected. They tend to be intense communicators, using whatever methods are convenient. They are avid listeners. Knowledge workers are perfectly capable of, and often enjoy, multi-tasking, of keeping a few things in the foreground and a stream of others bubbling in the background. Lawyers, for instance, might look up specific pieces of information in a book or on the internet but they must then draw upon their own experiences, their knowledge of the law and various court cases to create a strong defence for their client. They can't simply type a word into Google and expect to have the solution at their fingertips. Any information and data they use has to be processed carefully and creatively. In this kind of job, communications technology can actually harm effectiveness.

I recently saw a market research report that had clearly been produced by someone inexpert in the sector under review. They had used an inappropriate Google-style search to uncover some fairly meaningless statistics, which were cut and pasted into the report. The author of the report was ironically sitting less than 50m away from someone in the same organisation (but in a different department) who was a leading international expert in the subject. A knowledge hunter-gatherer would not start off with a crude search tool; they would ring up or email someone who was more expert than they were!

Knowledge workers should be using technology to be smarter, to make time for reflection and for focus. I attended a meeting taking evidence from IT experts at the House of Commons last year. I was horrified to see many of the experts using their Blackberries under the tables like naughty schoolchildren texting their friends during class. These experts have become willing victims of technology. They have allowed the immediate to drive out the important, the farming of information to drive out the hunting for the stimulus to knowledge. …