Distraction, Interruptions, and Other Forms of Collaboration

The BrainYard - Where collaborative minds congregate.

Jennifer Pahlka, Contributor

October 18, 2005

2 Min Read

Following to Jonathan Spira’s  post about interrputions, there was a fascinating article in the New York Times yesterday.  Collaboration is not mentioned but makes an appearance as its ugly stepchild: distraction.  Gloria Mark at the University of California at Irvine did a study that observed and tracked office employees work patterns and found:

Each employee spent only 11 minutes on any given project before being interrupted and whisked off to do something else. What's more, each 11-minute project was itself fragmented into even shorter three-minute tasks, like answering e-mail messages, reading a Web page or working on a spreadsheet. And each time a worker was distracted from a task, it would take, on average, 25 minutes to return to that task.

But the same study found that the interruptions are usually critical to getting the job done.  If the interruptions are the main parts where you interact with your colleagues (other than scheduled meetings, I suppose, which also interrupt, but less frequently), then a big part of collaboration is interruption.  The article goes on to propose that one of the reasons why we make ourselves so vulnerable to interruptions is that it makes us feel wanted and fulfills a base need for human interaction.  Linda Stone, a software executive now at Microsoft, is quoted as saying:

"It makes us feel alive," Stone says. "It's what makes us feel important. We just want to connect, connect, connect. But what happens when you take that to the extreme? You get overconnected." Sanity lies on the path down the center - if only there was some way to find it.

He wasn’t talking about interruptions, but this reminded me of James Surowiecki’s keynote at CTC 2005, the core learning from which was that in order to make a group as successful as possible, it’s members needed to be “loosely networked.”  In other words, in touch with each other but drawing on sources of data and opinion and having diverse perspectives.  But it’s a useful theme: finding the balance between disconnected and overconnected.  Will collaborative technologies solve this for us?  I don’t think so. They should, if done right, reduce the friction in connection and shared information.  But in terms of that balance, it’s more that we’ll need to think carefully about how to use technologies that enable a high degree of connection in order put them truly at our service.

Perhaps I should like to recruit a couple of these researchers to speak at CTC.  Maybe a panel on Attention?  Your feedback is welcome. 

Other good quotes from this piece:

Information is no longer a scarce resource - attention is

Our software tools were essentially designed to compete with one another for our attention, like needy toddlers.

As the mother of a toddler, I have to say, this is quite accurate.

About the Author(s)

Never Miss a Beat: Get a snapshot of the issues affecting the IT industry straight to your inbox.

You May Also Like

More Insights