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Context Switching is a Productivity Killer

June 03, 2015 by

This is Part II in a series on Distributed Collaboration

by David Coleman, Collaborative Strategies, Inc.

In Part I of the Distributed Collaboration Series, I alluded to a number of problems with collaboration today. Over the last 18 months, I’ve noticed a change in some of my enterprise clients. Several years ago, they were not interested in talking about switching from a collaborative infrastructure like Notes or Sharepoint, as they had invested millions over the years in these tools to provide collaboration for the enterprise.

However, in January 2015 we conducted a survey of over 500 from three different populations (CMSwire, CSI newsletter list, Clarizen users) which revealed a very different mindset. We asked how well their current collaboration tools met their needs, and only about 1/3 responded that their current tools met even SOME of their needs. We have found this is a common result for larger organizations that still have a Notes or SharePoint infrastructure that they have invested in over the years. Even if these organizations have continued investing in these collaborative infrastructures, they still could not do much of what a user can now do with one swipe on a smartphone.

Survey: “We asked how well their current collaboration tools met their needs, and only about 1/3 responded that their current tools only met even SOME of their needs.”
We even looked at this problem using the person’s role in the organization. In the C-suite (who are generally the least active users of collaborative technologies) 15% were happy with their collaboration tools, 50% felt their collaboration tools met SOME of their needs, and 35% felt they had to use different tools for different functions (i.e., a context switching problem).

Context switching is a productivity killer, as there is no “swiss army knife” of collaboration, that has all the functions one would need.

What we are starting to see is various tools, recognizing this context-switching problem and integrating with other common tools (SAP, project management tools, SFDC, etc.) so that the person using the tool does not have to switch context to get a bit of information they need for a task, and can continue their process in the same tool much more efficiently.

However, there is a downside to going too far in this direction, as you end up with too many nested functions and a complexity problem for users, which also decreases productivity. If we add to this mix the fact that there are often native phone apps that can do many of the functions of these desktop or browser-based programs at a fraction of the cost. Here again, the context switching problem comes up again. You need to use Evernote for one thing, Yammer for another, Smartsheet for a third. Although the cost is low, the productivity price is high.

“Context switching is a productivity killer”
If we add in the Millennials who want to work in a collaborative environment close to, (or better) than what they are used to (Twitter, Facebook, IM, etc.) and they are definitely not interested in using an antiquated messaging system like e-mail.  The Millennials have different priorities than the Boomers, for them it is all about connection. They are digital natives who have grown up collaborating with each other since they were kids, so it is a natural behavior for them (the downside for this generation is that they are great behind a computer screen, but not as strong in front of it).

Many CIOs I spoken with that had invested millions in these collaborative infrastructures would not move from them unless:

    1. A new application could be shown to run on top of their current network or infrastructure
    2. Saved them money
    3. Increased productivity
    4. Did not create any more security or regulatory or compliance issues
    5. Did not require extensive training and could be rolled out to the organization quickly
With technology advancing so rapidly, and the way we work changing so quickly, these CIOs are getting leapfrogged by applications like Fuze, which is combining its strength in real-time communications (chat, video, Web and data conferencing), with asynchronous functions like a sustained, secure, shared workspace for documents and files, the ability to chat, have activity streams, create threaded discussions and many other ways to interact around the content needed for work, all in context of a project. Solutions like Fuze Spaces not only avoid the context switching problem, they allow us as humans to work the way we more naturally work.
“Solutions like Fuze Spaces not only avoid the context switching problem, they allow us as humans to work the way we more naturally work.”
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But shared context is not a simple problem, as there are many types of context that are required for high performing and distributed teams. In my next blog, I will talk about “local context” and how it is more critical to successful teamwork than even trust!

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