Lilac and Lime

Contrasts in colour, contrasts in life – Mary Bruce

When a Fraction of Distraction Causes Better Action

[Published in the OSALL newsletter of March 2011]

2011 is already feeling well-worn and I’m sure many of us are satisfied with how productively the year has started. Of course working at top speed doesn’t always allow time for exploration and experimentation on the software front but often the fact that new and improved ways of doing old tasks pass by can be ascribed to our personal comfort zones. More frustrating and frequently voiced are the effects of silicone ceilings dictated by the IT teams who control our computer-related environments.

This column will refer to two articles that look more closely at why employers might do well to reconsider their policies in some cases and whether a particular one of our requirements is justified on the other hand.

Most importantly, IT policies are essential business tools and their impact should not be minimised. Their purpose is generally to protect the assets of the business and disregarding them could result in incalculable losses. All of us are likely to be aware of, or have personally experienced, downtime as a result of virus activity. A few years ago a number of law firms had to close their doors for up to three days while their networks were cleaned and restored. The financial losses alone would have been significant.

While we would all like to think we are sufficiently computer-savvy not to be caught by obvious means, think how many of our colleagues and friends have forwarded emails offering cellphones or other new and shiny temptations if the messages are forwarded to twenty or more other people ; our mail-servers are bombarded daily with spam from banks, Miriam Akaba reincarnated as Harris Johnson from the Sudan, marketers, apparent refunds and so on. Quite often we receive copies of these messages from the people we least expect it from : those who are online most days of the week and could reasonably be expected to know better.

More subtle is the threat posed by misuse of, for example, social media. Cases involving careless comments implicating employers or slanderous posts are frequently reported in the media. And, of course, loss of productivity has to be considered.

It is apparent why employers need to protect their assets and reputations. As far as IT teams are concerned, they are required to adhere to and apply policies just as the rest of the workforce and resisting will be counterproductive. However, I have frequently found that a reasonable knowledge of any service or product that we would like to use outside the existing facilities allows for rational motivation and, mostly, results in approval to try it out.

On the downside, Manjoo’s article1 voices the concern that arbitrary restrictions “infantilize workers” as they “foster resentment, reduce morale, lock people into inefficient routines and kill our incentives to work productively”. He refers to a case study conducted by the University of Melbourne that tested whether having access to the Web reduced productivity by comparing two sets of workers. The group that had access were 9 percent more productive although taking short breaks to go online before continuing with their work. The conclusion is that “distractions can be good for the mind”, doodling in meetings being a comparison.

A valid suggestion is that IT departments work harder to protect their networks by educating users rather than relying primarily on blocking access to useful resources.

On a similar but different note is Jeff Jarvis’ more light-hearted take on whether Twitter is a distraction from what we should be doing2. His references to the effects of our initial exposure to the Web and browsing, TV and even books, are valid reasons to reconsider bias against social media. The euphoria and commitment that come with the discovery of these facilities wear off and they each slot into a rational, appropriate and sustainable role in our lives. While we undoubtedly still burn the midnight oil occasionally over an unputdownable book, would we really say that reading is counterproductive to our lifestyles and should be curtailed? Not likely.

Jarvis refers to Elizabeth Eisenstein’s Divine Art, Infernal Machine, specifically how “triumphalists” and “catastrophists” responded to the advent of the printing press. Read the article, maybe the book, but let this quote suffice for now “. . . “the very multitude of [new books] is hurting scholarship, because it creates a glut, and even in good things satiety is most harmful”. The minds of men “flighty and curious of anything new” are lured “away from the study of old authors”. “

Almost as interesting as the article are some of the comments posted below (a prime example of the benefits of Web 2.0 in the interchange of ideas) :
“If one has faith in humanity, one tends to see new tools as enabling ; if one has little faith, the tools are crippling” – Miki Chan
“You have done what few are willing or capable of doing to these discussions . . . apply Context” – Tim Pearson
“A tool is either useful in a given situation or it is not. There is no right or wrong or good or bad to it. They are only tools, waiting to be used by those who need them” – Tom
“No information is instantly available, omnipresent, and massive in scope. If you don’t agree, do an experiment. Cancel your mobile phone. Nothing better illustrates how modern technology has exploded in distraction potential than it” – Dave D
“The sound of old media dying” – Jonathan

I’m going to end this column with one of those comments :
“Industrial Age workers needed to manage their time. Information Age workers need to manage their attention”.


1 Unchain the office computers! : why corporate IT should let us browse any way we want / Farhad Manjoo. 25 August 2009
2 The distraction trope / Jeff Jarvis. February 2011

Mary Bruce

Opinions expressed in this column are my own and not necessarily those of my employer.


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