Why we waste so much time looking for information at work

It appears that we effectively only work 3 days a week. Statistically, we spend the fourth day searching for information and the fifth day inefficiently dealing with data, such as reformatting, updating, versioning, copying, pasting and getting data out of one application to put it into another.[1]  All told, we waste a significant part of our time per week on these unworthy tasks. Such is the conclusion by various analysts. Wasted time is nothing really new, but what shocked me was the high cost in productivity loss associated with this inefficiency. According to IDC [2], it costs organizations an average of $22.000 annually per employee (earning on average $56.000). Add to this the opportunity costs lost as a result of time wasted. This makes meetings look like a productive part of a day.

How is it possible though, considering how big “search” has become? What’s the problem with information inside corporations and public administrations? From my pov there are four key challenges that separate information management within organizations from internet search:  Increasing data volumes, multi-modal usage, context as well as the content itself.

The information tidal wave

Consider this: according to a Harvard Business Review blog, more data was generated by individuals in 2009 than in the entire history of mankind.[3] This trend seems to be continuing, as according to IDC, data volumes are set to double every 18 months [4]. While increasing data volumes seem more like a law of nature on the web, organizations purposefully spend millions of dollars collecting information every day. Data has value. If we think of all data as money, then every day huge deposits are deliberately made to the information bank of an organization.

Multi-modal usage

It has become commonplace to work with a variety of devices and platforms.  Remember the days when your only mobile device was a Blackberry? Now we use multiple devices such as laptops, desktops, IPads, smartphone and work across Android, Windows, or IOS platform. This translates into new compatibility challenges in terms of the ability to view and work with data seamlessly across multiple modes and platforms. The meteoritic rise of Evernote with a user base beyond 10 million is in large part explained by multi-modal and cross-platform accessibility on a proposition as mundane as note-taking.

Context of business information

Google led the way with search innovation, but search inside a company is more complicated than indexing documents. For starters, web-based indexation algorithms don’t really work in businesses. Relevance doesn’t correlate with traffic volumes. Unlike consumer search, search in the enterprise typically has context given through a process, role or task. For example, a qualified sales call is based on the customer’s past purchases, product usage, industry news, history of interaction and possibly external information such as credit rating or people profiles. The completeness of this information makes for a richer and more effective interaction. However, this information typically resides in various databases, can be internal or external, is either structured or unstructured (email etc.) and comes in varying formats. Moreover, compliance matters:  businesses require access controls (f. ex. HR records), change management, retention and archiving. Those rules are typically a function of the nature of the record itself or the role of a given user. It isn’t unusual for confidential documents that were left lying around to show up in search results. A flurry of external regulations adds to the complexity in more ways than one: GDPdU, KonTraG, BASEL II, SOX, MiFid, etc.

Heterogeneous content 

The information space of organizations is different than the web’s. Even for simple queries employees have to pull information that may reside in databases,
content management systems, outlook folders, line of business applications and other structured or semi-structured repositories. From our experience 10 different repositories are no exception. Compared to Web search, enterprise search queries often return a large number of results that are less amenable to
objective ranking. Relevance is difficult to generate because context is not provided as a filter mechanism. Unlike a web search, where it is less of a productivity impact if  a query returns millions of results of which only a few are looked at, in the enterprise this lack of informational value is expensive and leads to productivity loss. Gartner rightfully states that “context changes everything” in B-to-C. [5] It certainly does behind the firewall.

What’s next?

The use of social networking such as Facebook or Twitter at work poses a new challenge. How do companies enforce what information can be shared? How can privacy rules be upheld? How do organizations mediate between the transactional, collaborative and social layers of information?  How will we reconcile the rigidity of line of business systems (that serve a purpose in many ways) and the volatility of social networks? “Search” is the wrong frame to describe the task. The answer to these challenges requires an approach we termed “structured flexibility” to information management. This blog will explore possible alternatives over time.

In any case, providing the right information at the right time is a challenge worth pursuing, since even small improvements are impactful: a 15 percent productivity increase a week results in 2 hours of additional employee performance – or free time as the case may be.  As management legend Peter Drucker predicted: “The most important contribution management needs to make in the 21st Century is to increase the productivity of the knowledge worker.”[6] At Combionic we aim to contribute to this challenge.


[1] see: Feldman, Susan, Hidden Cost of Information Work: A Progress Report,‖ International Data Corporation (IDC), Framingham, MA, May 2009.

[2] see: Feldman, Susan, Hidden Cost of Information Work: A Progress Report,‖ International Data Corporation (IDC), Framingham, MA, May 2009.

[3] see: Harvard Business Review, http://blogs.hbr.org/now-new-next/2009/05/the-social-data-revolution.html, accessed on July 14 2010.

[4] see: Digital universe info graphic, http://www.emc.com/leadership/programs/digital-universe.htm accessed on July 14 2010.

[5] Clark, William: “Context-aware computing will be one of the top disruptive trends of the next decade.”; Gartner, Context Changes Everything:
What CIOs Must Know, September 24 2010.

[6] Drucker, Peter F., Management Challenges for the 21st Century, Butterworth-Heinemann, Oxford, 1999, page 135.