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Coping with Info Overload: Presence and Attention

  • August 31 2006, 1:00am EDT

While the business intelligence (BI) sector has spent a lot of time honing the mechanics of generating numbers -the terms ETL (extract, transform and load), OLAP, data warehouse, query and reporting easily roll off the tongue of a BI practitioner - how users consume the information has received short shrift.

This is not an easy area to study. Experts still only vaguely understand how workers make decisions. This means the area is rife with "softness," compared to the satisfyingly hard facts of BI. However, as enterprises get better at generating numbers, they are realizing that how well - or poorly - workers consume and share the numbers is the new challenge.

With that in mind, this column will talk about two areas of focus in the collaboration space - presence and attention - with the hope that they will give you a glimpse into the challenges ahead.


Presence is the act of understanding where users "are" at the moment. While it certainly takes into account physical location - at work, at home, traveling - it also includes how they can be reached. For example, are they running email, can they be reached by instant messaging (IM), are they close to a phone, is their BlackBerry on? As team collaboration crosses more boundaries - time zones, companies, locations and technologies - the noting of presence is becoming more important. Enterprises can no longer assume that they can get everyone they need into a conference room.

Therefore, collaboration vendors are working to gather presence information and leverage it as a way to decrease phone tag, missed messages, and otherwise improve the logistics of collaborating. This means that the system not only notes all the ways the employee can be contacted, but also highlights which ones are "live" - e.g., available in IM and reachable via cell phone.


Of course, the downside to presence technologies is that they're a license to nag and interrupt people. "Did you send me the latest report on Project X? I didn't see it." "What are the stats Competitor A? I need the numbers pronto!" While the productivity of the interrupter soars, the productivity of the interruptee takes a dive.

This is the province of attention. How do people work best? Additionally, just because someone can be interrupted, it doesn't mean that they should.

Attention varies based on the task at hand. For example, a programmer in the midst of coding a complex algorithm needs total concentration. If he is interrupted for any reason, it may take him 15 minutes to resubmerge himself in the problem and get back to where he was. On the other hand, a sales rep in the midst of telephoning to set up appointments may be easily interruptible, especially for a task that will land him the $2 million deal he has been working to close this quarter.

Attention is somewhat similar to the visual field. Important items should be close by and instantly pop into view. Areas of interest should be nearby, but should not necessarily wave wildly for attention. Finally, other areas should remain in the periphery - available if the user wants to go there, but somewhat in the distant haze.

Put another way, attention-attentive products try to run triage on new information, based on the subject, who it is from or how urgent it is. For example, rather than have every employee wade through 200 emails per day, can the system take a rough cut at what to look at first? As you can imagine, this is not an easy problem to solve. However, the good news is that the industry is finally realizing that information overload is taking a real toll on worker productivity.

So What Does This Mean to You?

This is all well and good, but what does it mean to you? Well, presence can be used to deliver BI information in its appropriate form. For example, if an important alert needs to go out, presence can help you send it in a terse form for those reachable only by text messaging and in a more verbose form for those sitting in front of a desktop PC.

Dashboards (terse) and enterprise reporting (verbose) already filter BI results today, but they are inclined to do it based on role (C-level managers get dashboards, analysts get reports) rather than physical location. Therefore, the delivery mechanisms are all in place; now they just need to be linked to presence information.

Attention is a bit trickier in the BI world. In the unstructured content universe, emails, messages and memos bombard people all the time. Furthermore, it is difficult for workers to screen them, because the subject is not always easy to discern. This contrasts with structured data, which by its very nature is already a distillation. Furthermore, a report's subject is clear: this one contains HR information; this OLAP cube tracks sales by region.

Because BI does such a good job of delivering relevant information to its users, the concept of attention is helpful for thinking through how BI can deliver "less relevant" information. For example, a marketing vice president intently focused on the U.S. market may miss interesting signals from the European sector. He or she may not need weekly updates from Europe; but perhaps monthly or quarterly reports would help keep him or her from being blindsided by developments in Europe. Therefore, think through some "big picture" reports that your users may not be asking for but should be looking at from time to time.

In any case, the concepts of presence and attention help you understand how workers consume information - key to ensuring that the numbers you generate are leveraged to the utmost within your company.

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