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October 2008 | Volume 11 / Number 10
UC Unplugged

Collaboration: Increasing Productivity or Increasing Disruptions?

In my previous column, I examined an everyday issue facing enterprise workers: How to find the right person who can answer your questions. In that example, I had an expense account question, and I wasn’t sure if I needed someone in HR or accounting. How could I identify the company’s resident “expert” on the matter?

Well, I found my expert, although not through any use of technology. I just asked someone I knew personally in HR. But, that got me thinking. What if you’re one of these experts in the company, pinged incessantly by co-workers to answer questions, dealing with constant interruptions? How do you ever carve out any time for your “day job”?

And, these interruptions do come at a cost — about $588 billion a year, according to a recent study by Basex, a knowledge management research firm.1 Analysts claim that interruptions from phone calls, emails and instant messages eat up 28 percent of a knowledge worker’s workday, resulting in 28 billion hours of lost productivity a year, the study found. The $588 billion figure assumes a salary of $21 per hour for knowledge workers.

UC technology— instant messaging, presence, email, etc.— is making it easier to reach out to people in real-time. You’ve heard the promises of unified communications, including always-on connectivity and even location-based awareness. Is this newfound ability get in touch with anyone, anywhere, anytime, doing much for our collective productivity? Is there a way to take advantage of the profound benefits that UC offers, but still control how and when people are “interrupting” to get their questions answered in a timely fashion?

Companies need to strike the right balance between answering questions quickly — satisfying the information seeker — while being respectful of the knowledge worker’s time — the information giver. The issue is larger than simply managing knowledge workers. It’s about managing the flow of knowledge itself.

This is exactly what the contact center has grappled with over the years and learned to address. So, what can the enterprise learn from those who field questions from knowledge seekers (aka consumers) every day?

Since questions in a contact center are often asked in a certain predictable pattern — e.g., billing questions come at the beginning of the month — it is often possible to predict when customer service experts will need to be available to answer inquiries. Predictive models can be built upon this pattern. Contact centers leverage workforce management software to model the behaviors of customers’ inquires and schedule people accordingly. While I don’t advocate turning the enterprise into a contact center, these complex interactions can give us fresh insights into how we can more efficiently manage knowledge throughout the enterprise.

One of the contact center’s best practices is to have groups of experts available during particular periods of the day. This pooling of resources enables better service, improves “first call resolution” and also eases the burden from any one individual to be constantly available to answer all questions.

The same concepts might apply in the enterprise. For example, a solution could track and analyze calls, emails or IMs to individuals in a defined group (such as accounts payable), and determine that they tend to receive a barrage of inquiries on Friday at 2 p.m. regarding expense reports. Because people want to get in their reports before the weekend, they tend to call the accounts payable group regarding questions that require additional help from an expert. So the idea is, if an organization can use technology to predict when these calls are coming in, this makes it easier to schedule experts — potentially using the whole of accounts payable as a group — to ensure they have someone available to take those calls during those key hours. And, because the accounts payable person knows this is going to happen and that they’re likely to be interrupted, they can organize the rest of the day better so they can complete their other tasks. Furthermore, calendars could be automatically updated to block out the time.

We know that people with expertise to share are more efficient, less stressed, and more productive when they can work on certain tasks consistently without interruption. Likewise, people who have questions will have more trust in the system if they find that their needs are answered in a timely manner.

When I contacted that HR employee on my expense account question, I would hate to think that I interrupted her from an important task, because I know I don’t like to be interrupted when I’m deep into a project. But it’s hard to envision a perfect world where no one will ever be interrupted and all questions are always answered promptly, so it’s nice to know there are tools that organizations can employ that can help us re-think the way we manage knowledge assets in the age of unified communications and still be respectful of people’s time.


1 eWeek, January 2, 2008, “Study: Collaboration Overload Costs U.S. $588B a Year”.

Mike Sheridan is Senior Vice President, Strategy and Marketing for Aspect (News - Alert) Software (

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