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Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Work Skills Keeping Up?

In New Work and New Work Skills, I discuss the fact that most of us have not participated in formal learning since college on foundational knowledge work skills - especially metacognitive skills. Our last formal learning used card catalogs, microfiche readers, Xerox machines, libraries, etc.

Most of us have strong skills in some areas and are much weaker in others simply due to the fact that we acquire our skills in completely ad hoc ways.

When were you taught:
  • how to take take notes on a laptop during a meeting,
  • how to filter a flood of new content,
  • how to reach out via networks to find expertise,
  • how to leverage the wisdom of crowds?

Tilde Effect

What epitomizes the situation for me is the Google ~ operator. A lot of people who are concept workers use Google every day and have no idea that the ~ operator even exists. Sure they can get along without it. I only use it in about 2-3% of my searches. And folks can probably get along without using the filetype, inurl or a myriad of other search operators and techniques.

But, the fact that concept workers claim in surveys to be above average in their search skills but they don't incorporate these operators tells me that there's a gap.
Tilde Effect - gap between available tools and methods and the average capabilities of concept workers due to the ad hoc nature of work skills acquisition.
My strong belief is that the foundations of knowledge work are changing fairly quickly and most of us learn completely through ad hoc mechanisms that are not likely to yield good coverage. If you could have an expert look over your shoulder at how you do things on a day-to-day basis, you likely could find many improvements. Every one of us would be somewhat embarrassed to have that expert sitting there because we know that we could stand to do things better.

Tangible Impact

The Tilde Effect at an individual level has massive aggregate impact.

A recently released Workplace Productivity Survey, reported by MSNBC, had the following findings:
  • 62 percent of professionals report that they spend a lot of time sifting through irrelevant information to find what they need;
  • 68 percent wish they could spend less time organizing information and more time using the information that comes their way.
  • 85 percent agree that not being able to access the right information at the right time is a huge time-waster.
  • More than 40 percent of the survey participants indicate an inability to handle future increases in information flow.
  • White-collar professionals spend an average of 2.3 hours daily conducting online research, with one in 10 spending four hours or more on an average day.
The figure from Basex as reported in the New York Times of $650B as the cost of interruptions and the total cost information overload is $900B (see comment).

When you couple this with the fact that we have moved to a knowledge economy where the dominant value is our concept work capabilities and where pace needs to be continually faster - we can't afford to have a workforce that lags in their concept work skills. This is a big reason behind new offerings like the work skills workshop.

Bottom Line

The bottom line for the Tilde Effect is that we live in a time of incredible innovation that directly affect the methods we use to work and learn. Our work skills cannot sit still. There's a lot of discussion about 21st century skills to be taught in schools, but what about the rest of us?

And how important is this? Let me rely on a few other people to help here:
We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.
Roy Amara, Institute for the Future.
It’s not the strongest of the species that survive, it’s the ones most adaptable to change.

Being adaptable in a flat world, knowing how to ‘learn how to learn,’ will be one of the most important assets any worker can have, because job churn will come faster, because innovation will happen faster.

The most important contribution management needs to make in the 21st Century is to increase the productivity of the knowledge worker.
We are truly in a time of incredible innovation of work skills. We are struggling to keep up. And we need to collectively be focused on this issue!

Other Posts in the Series


Anonymous said...

To clarify: the $650 billion figure you cite from us is not for information overload but rather for a component of it: unnecessary interruptions and recovery time.

At the end of 2008, we announced, however, that the cost of Information Overload is $900 billion p.a.

We also announced an Information Overload Calculator ( that knowledge workers can use to determine the extent of Information Overload within their own organizations.

Anonymous said...

Indeed, the key in dealing with volumes of data is to be able to select smartly what in fact is relevant and useful versus fluff.

One of the technologies that may help is automatic text summarization. Summarization is kind of speed-up reading condensing web pages, emails and documents into keywords and summaries presented in context.

By pointing to the most important content, it allows the reader to make quick determinations if they want to read the full text.

I am involved in developing such a tool. Context Organizer summarizes web pages and Google search results giving the user an instant overview of the key ideas.

If you were interested to learn more please contact me or better download Context Organizer from Context Discovery and try it out.

V Yonkers said...

This post, however, brings up the question as to whether using a new tool is, in fact, more efficient than the heuristics that we have developed for ourselves.

There was a recent show on scientific America frontiers in which a brain researcher found that embedded habits did not need as much brain energy as those processes that did not "fit the rules" we had created for these habits. I interpreted this that it does take more energy to change processes than to use a process that works well. Why should I use the ~ when I am able to find information and interpret it using those processes I already have created in my mind?

Tony Karrer said...

Jonathan - thanks for the clarification. Do you have a citation for the $900B?

Henry - I've briefly looked at those tools before but will look fresh.

Virginia - I agree that changing causes a period of lesser performance and greater anxiety. However, there are changes that ultimately get you to much better performance. This is the old issue of suboptimization. You reach a local max, but to achieve greater max you must move outside your comfort zone. I'm not saying that every change is the right thing for every person. But for many people there are lots of opportunities for improvement.

Ask yourself the question - if someone sat down next to me and watched how I did things, would I feel good about my approach?

Anonymous said...

Thanks Tony, I enjoyed the post. A few things sprang to mind.

On the one hand this post reads as though it is encouraging us all to go back to formal education on the basis that informal education is not, shall we say, as well rounded or complete. Probably true, but I am not sure that running back to school is going to help that much. Informal education is scratching where you itch when you itch and there is a great deal of relief in that. Nonetheless, if I am hearing this correctly, there is an implication that if the itch turns into something more persistent, then we need to seek the structure of more formal and planned learning and probably need to be creative about the place we find it. OERs for instance, might bring these aspects together.

One of the most important issues your post raised for me was that of the changing role of the training unit (whether 1 person or 100) in this context. Remembering first that everyone is not a knowledge worker but setting that aside, the there seem to be changes in the way a training department should respond to the knowledge and/or concept workers' needs. Identifying and satisfying these needs may be something that requires more focus (and probably more effort to get management to understand the benefits). The benefits, however, could add substantially to an organization's performance. Measuring that is a different challenge...

Gary H said...

New tools/strategies are definitely in order. The amount of information available will just continue to increase, exponentially. I think organizations need to step back and think seriously about the information and data they produce and distribute, both internally and externally.

Information needs to be made more relevant at the time of creation, not the time of consumption. If organizations required meta-data for every piece of information, then tools could filter it. What if internal email had required meta-data? What if people knew how to create inbox filters based on that meta-data? What if people stopped hitting "reply to all"?

I'd like to go back to school just to see what meta skills they are teaching now. I wonder if ~ is mentioned in research classes? I didn't know about it, so thanks Tony for helping me learn today.

Tony Karrer said...

Allyn & Gary - It's strange because I don't mean to suggest that schools are necessarily great right now at adapting to teaching about all of these things. For instance, I still complain that Cursive Writing is being taught and not touch typing. And I certainly didn't mean to suggest that we should all go back to school. I do mean to suggest that there's opportunity here for taking workshops to learn some of these things.

My experience watching how my kids are exposed from a very early age to these things, they simply have incorporated them. So, while schools are struggling to keep up with all these changes as well, I do believe that a person graduating today is likely better at some of these core work skills than the average knowledge worker who's been out for 20 years.

Tony Hirst said...

If you're collecting examples like the tilde effect, I'd include right clicking; it's surprising how many people *don't* think to right click on a link or piece of highlighted text when they want to do something they should be able to with it, but aren't sure how...

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Wow Tony - cracker post.

It seems there's a lot of interest in sifting through the junk for the good stuff.

Information overload, cognitive overload, cognitive strain through multi-tasking, all that lot seems to be about not so much what has to be done, but how it's done. In some respects it's like a mind-set for doing a searching task.

I tend not to go searching for something that's relevant AND take it in all at the same time when I find what's relevant. My brain hurts when I do that.

So, I sift first, skimming through all the stuff that's irrelevant, listing the stuff that might be relevant. That task isn't related in any way to reading and understanding what's relevant. I do that at another time.

It's all to do with decision making. Cognitive overload is most likely after the mind has made a decision. The brain tires like a muscle. So if I'm sifting and making a decision on what's relevant, I blow a gasket when I then stop at something relevant and start reading and trying to understand it.

Notes on a laptop? It's easy, I just close it - makes a good desktop for paper and pencil :-)

I know, I know. Steam age again. But it works!

from Middle-earth

Anonymous said...


Here is a link to the information on the $900 billion cost of Information Overload.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, here is the link:

Tony Karrer said...

Tony H - great point. I should have mentioned that in my Browser short cuts post.

Ken - I like your strategy on skimming/collecting then going back. I use a similar strategy.

I understand about taking notes on paper - but I'm horrible at organizing them after. Thus, I've gone to taking notes on a computer. It's taken a little bit, but the fully search-able nature makes it good for me. Can't claim it's immediately as good as taking notes on paper, but long term value is higher.

Jonathan - thanks for the citation!

Abbey said...

You lump libraries into the category of outmoded forms of information. Libraries have changed faster than your brain has, obviously. Libraries are still in the business of gathering, organizing, and disseminating information better than ever.