Interruptions cost companies

A recent study suggests approximately one-third of the workweek is spent answering other peoples’ questions, leading to significant productivity loss.

Collaborative Strategies LLC, a San Francisco-based management services firm, conducted the survey on behalf of Mountain View, Calif.-based knowledge and expertise management solution provider ePeople. A total of 300 employees and managers participated, all from North American companies with annual revenues of US$50 million or more.

Those surveyed indicated that interruptive questions resulted in managers and team members spending just 68 per cent of the week performing their primary job. The rest of the time was spent answering repetitive questions, according to Collaborative.

Ed Shepherdson, vice-president of global customer support for Ottawa-based software vendor Cognos, an ePeople customer, said within his organization, the most frequent interruptions occur when junior people interrupt senior people with more knowledge. “Every time (it happens), it costs your company money. The time of that senior person is very valuable, and it creates a burden on senior resources that are being asked to provide the information down the channel repetitively.”

Another reason why productivity may go down has to do with frustration. “If you’re always answering the same questions, you have the potential to get frustrated and snarky,” he said. A typical knowledge worker is “primarily driven off of challenges. When you have to repeat something that has already been discovered, it takes its toll….As you get interrupted, your effectiveness goes down because of your attitude.”

According to Anthony Lye, CEO of ePeople, the trouble is that many organizations don’t have a process in place to manage frequently asked questions and their respective answers.

He said it’s not as serious a problem for companies that sell books, airline tickets and financial products, where the types of questions that could be asked are somewhat limited. But for those that sell more complex products, like software, there are millions of potential questions to be answered, increasing the odds that an employee will have to interrupt someone else in order to solve a problem for a customer.

“If you can’t resolve a situation and you have to resort to interrupting anyone you can think of, your company takes a double hit,” Lye said.

Of the study’s respondents, 84 per cent said they have no technology for expertise management and location. Of those, all but one said they used a homegrown, intranet-based tool.

Shepherdson said he suspects the low adoption of expertise management and knowledge sharing tools might have something to do with their complexity and what it costs to administer them. Each department might have its own idea of what knowledge is and its own place to store it, and by the time they’re done, there are so many variations of the data that it’s like having several disparate databases of knowledge – “and you’re back to square one again.

“To have someone try to manage, control, and bring all of this together takes time and energy. The cost requires strong commitment to organize it, and the strongest argument against getting one of these solutions is the lack of buy-in of the whole organization.”

Shepherdson compared the simplicity of the ePeople solution to that of the file-sharing program Kazaa. “Anybody can contribute to the knowledge, and can ask or respond to any question. It has an area for sharing directed knowledge where you ask your questions and find information about a topic very easily.” The system ensures the question goes to the right person, because each user indicates their area of expertise.

For Cognos, that means if a customer service person can’t find the answer in his or her own documentation, they can post a question to all other analysts that have experience with that product. “The other analysts are not forced to answer, but if they have a few minutes, they can respond.” The question can go to a designated expert or to everyone, and the whole conversation is saved and searched later on.

Although analysts have a heavy workload, Shepherdson said the solution’s ranking system acts like a built-in “ego booster,” offering an incentive for analysts to answer questions in their field of expertise.