Friday, October 14, 2011

Some good things about multi-tasking

I have often blogged about multi-tasking.  Usually, what I talk about are the negatives.  People can’t really multi-task.  What you are doing is linearly switching back and forth among different activities and just paying attention to one task at a time. This can be a problem if something happens in one task while you are focused on another (a car cuts in front of you while you are texting, or even changing the radio station).  Also, there is a cost called attentional blink where it takes a few seconds to re-orient yourself to each task.  So every time you switch from one to another, which can be as often as 3 times a minute, you lose 10-20 seconds of productivity.  And when they are cognitively complex tasks, it could take a minute or more to completely switch.  Many white collar workers are losing half their day trying to multi-task projects, emails, meetings, and so on.
But today, I have some very positive stories to share about multi-tasking, thanks to Cathy Davidson’s (Duke Professor) new book NowYou See It.

First, she talks about changing the way we think about multi-tasking.  It is true that one person can only focus on one thing at a time and there is a cost to switch back and forth.  But what if we leverage the collaborative functionality of technology to change the way we organize work?  What if we do a better job of managing the division of activities among a team so that each person can focus more on one or two things instead of four or five?  She doesn’t recommend modularizing everything.  That is just high-tech Taylorism.  She talks about an integrative task division that is both separate and combined.  She is weak on the details of how to actually DO this, but it is a very promising idea.

Next, she talks about Aza Raskin, a tech-savvy practitioner of user experience, who has found a way of organizing his own workspace to minimize the costs of multi-tasking.  He has one central computer monitor, centered on his desk, where his attention can be focused exclusively, on which he only puts his primary task for the day.  A paper he is writing, data he is analyzing, a problem he is solving or whatever.  Then if this task requires any secondary activities (such as looking something up online or asking a coworker a question), he has a side monitor that he can easily switch to, but doesn’t distract him when he doesn’t need it.  In his case, it’s a 90 degree turn on a side hutch.  And he has a timer set on this where if he stays on it to long it pops up a message reminding him of the main task still waiting on the other computer.  And there is a filter that blocks this computer from non-work fun stuff.  If he wants to take a break and do any of this, he actually has to walk a little down the hall and use a different computer.  This computer is set with a faster popup message if he spends too much time on it and actually slows down the processor after a certain period.  When his Facebook page loads slowly, he gets frustrated and is encouraged to go back to his main activity.

Her third example is a new style of conference call being used by IBM.  Chuck Hamilton, IBM’s Virtual Learning Strategy Leader (cool title, huh?), describes it as a way to take advantage of our tendency to multi-task during conference calls. How many times have you had a conference call on speaker phone while you do other things like check email or work on a project?  If you hear something that needs your input, you switch over and add your 2 cents.  That is of course assuming that you heard what was said and care enough to switch.  Instead, IBM has a multi-tasking conference call system.  One or two people can be talking at a time (which is typical for conference calls), but there are two simultaneous chatting features on their Sametime system (think WebEx).  You can send private messages to other conference call attendees to discuss (positively or negatively) what the speaker is saying.  You can also post to a general chat window visible to all.  This helps people integrate their ideas without having to wait for a pause in the conversation or for the speaker to finish his/her thought.  What they have found is that more people contribute ideas, more ideas get contributed in total, people feel less ownership of ideas (because they are more likely to be combinations of many peoples’ input), and the teleconferences end up being much more productive.

And all three of these are in Chapter 6.  I can’t wait to read Chapter 7 !!!!