Chewing and walking gum

The above title doesn’t make any sense, does it?  It’s a transposition of a silly old expression… but it’s indicative of the mixups that can occur when a person takes on too much at one time… and recent data proves once again it’s no laughing matter.

Multitasking, however, is the job requirement du jour it seems, expected of practically every employee as companies carve into the bone in desperate attempts to cut overhead.  And even if cost reduction is not part of the rationale, the goal remains to increase efficiency.

The Problem

In 2001 a study of the subject showed that juggling tasks actually tends to make us less efficient, an outcome that many of us forced into such scenarios already knew intutively.  And since then, study after study has consistently borne out those results.  Corporate executives just don’t seem to be paying attention.

Post Industrial Revolution our forebears found themselves pushed increasingly into specialization as efficiency experts recognized the productivity gains such moves could bring.  How ironic, then, to find ourselves in modern times regressing back to generalization— only in some hyperactive mode that stupidly expects the best of both worlds from stretched-thin, stressed-out individuals.

I recall an engineering director’s response when informed by a staff member that we were not meeting customer expectations.  His response?  “More multitasking, longer hours.”  We were stunned that an otherwise educated man was missing the obvious: time is linear, so that adding hours to a schedule doesn’t improve the situation when a customer’s needs are immediate.  And with multitasking easily shown as a major mistake, the smarter response is increase staff to meet demandnot spread existing staff thinner or longer.

Since efficiency can translate directly into expenses, anything that reduces it is a net drag on your bottom line… yet cutting employee count is typically the first reaction when managers look for cost improvements.  Oddly enough, in many cases I’ve seen the more effective multitaskers cut first!

This quote from the 2003 article gets to the heart of the matter:

“Current cognitive models suggest that people have a limited amount of attention available at any moment,” says Seth Greenberg, a professor of psychology at Union College. “Attention could be thought of as a fuel that can be dispersed. Thus, tasks can be performed simultaneously with efficiency as long as the required attention for both tasks does not exceed the limit.” In other words, a person can multitask effectively as long as any given task doesn’t require too much attention and thereby exhaust his resources.

Moral: conserve your mental fuel for the important stuff and ration appropriately.

The Promise

“Walking and chewing gum” is not really a useful analogy.  Both can be background tasks that consume very little active brainpower.  Coordinating the former, however, is a different matter– it requires conscious effort.  So consider how many neurons need to fire to do justice to critical activities like production planning, financial transactions, and (more importantly) healthcare.

There’s an available solution to the problem.  Information Management can support multitasking.  It just isn’t utilized fully and effectively enough.

For the past twenty-something years I have labored in professional work environments, steadily watching the drive for multitasking increase to the point of insanity.  And most of that activity revolves around the sharing of information… which oddly enough in this day of automation abilities is still largely done using ancient methods ill-suited for modern work environs.  I have been a part of too many organizations depending too much on low-tech “solutions” to knowledge sharing such as phone calls, emails and even post-it notes.  This tends to result from siloed business processes forcing people out of one unique work need and into another with no automated conveyance of critical information.

In other words, no organic connectivity.  Brute-force sharing.

By the same token, however, I have been fortunate to participate in the overhaul of such antiquated situations and witness their transformation into models of workflow best practices.  A robust information management solution lifts much of the menial burden from beleagured employees, freeing them from the “need” to multitask the sharing portion at the very least.  This liberation also reduces anxiety, mistakes and conflicts.

In one untapped scenario I saw the potential of an easy 50% reduction in labor if internal siloes were demolished and independent workflows stitched together.

Let that sink in.  If anything it is probably an under-assessment.

The hurdle there, as I noted in a similarly-themed article, is that employees tend to fear they will be let go if efficiency improves.  More irony– and an indication of why such overhauls need to be championed from higher up.


It’s obvious to me that some sort of middle ground can and must be achieved here.  Staffing decisions need to be driven from fact-based analysis rather than conventional “wisdom” about worker abilities that is increasingly proven to be really dumb.  Information management needs to be deployed anywhere the flow of knowledge breaks down.  How many studies over how many years will it take for these points to be finally beaten home?

Looks like we could use some multi(discipline) task forces…😉

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