September 1, 2008  

The threat from within

E-mail overload degrades military decision-making

If a technological or biological weapon were devised that could render tens of thousands of Defense Department knowledge workers incapable of focusing their attention on cognitive tasks for more than 10 minutes at a time, joint military doctrine would clearly define the weapon as a threat to national security.

Indeed, according to the principles of network attack under Joint Publication 3-13, “Information Operations (IO),” anything that degrades or denies information or the way information is processed and acted upon constitutes an IO threat. That same publication cautions military leaders to be ever-vigilant in protecting against evolving technologically based threats. Yet throughout the Defense Department and the federal government, the inefficient and undisciplined use of technology by the very people technology was supposed to benefit is degrading the quality of decision-making and hobbling the cognitive dimension of the information environment.

Commentators use terms such as data smog, informania, data asphyxiation, attentional overload and cyber-indigestion to describe a newly recognized phenomenon: information overload. Lax digital hygiene and the careless use of technology exacerbate the harmful effects of information overload. As a result, commanders and decision-makers at all levels are rendered less aware and less capable of resolving complex issues and maintaining decision dominance across the range of military operations.

Joint doctrine unambiguously recognizes that “information is a strategic resource vital to national security,” and that “dominance of the information environment is a reality that extends to the Armed Forces of the U.S. at all levels.” Though IO doctrine doesn’t specifically appear to address unintentional internally generated threats, JP 3-13’s definitions and analytical framework clearly illuminate an evolving IO threat to which we routinely subject our decision-making processes by neglecting to manage information overload.

Information overload is taking on greater prominence in academic and mainstream media, with coverage cast primarily on lost productivity, economic impacts, and worker health and satisfaction. From the relentless torrent of e-mail, to the Internet’s seductive capacity to draw knowledge workers away from productive cognitive engagement like intellectual crack cocaine, there’s a growing consensus that while information is generally a good thing, too much of it clearly is not.

IO threats come in many different forms. Maybe it’s a server-clogging 12 megabyte PowerPoint slide with an embedded photo of a tropical sunset inviting you to a retirement luncheon for someone you’ve never met. Perhaps it’s the eighth volley of a “reply to all” e-mail chain recounting a discussion that’s irrelevant to you and 47 of the other 50 CC’d addressees. Or it could be the important deadline you overlooked because the task and due date were buried somewhere in the middle of a rambling narrative, the subject line of which failed to differentiate it in any way from the inescapable rising tide of inconsequential flotsam already choking your inbox.

We all receive too much e-mail. According to the Radacati Research Group, roughly 541 million knowledge workers worldwide rely on e-mail to conduct business, with corporate users sending and receiving an average of 133 messages per day — and rising. While no open-source studies address how the Defense Department’s e-mail volume compares to corporate users’, my own anecdotal experience and that of legions of colleagues suggests a striking similarity. Without fail, they report struggling every day to keep up with an e-mail inbox bloated with either poorly organized slivers of useful data points that must be sifted like needles from stacks of nonvalue-adding informational hay or messages that are completely unrelated to any mission-furthering purpose.

E-mail is a poor tool for communicating complex ideas. Text-only communication, or “lean media,” as it is referred to by researchers who study the comparatively new field of computer mediated communication, lacks the nonverbal cues, such as facial expression, body language, vocal tone and tempo, that inform richer means of communication. Moreover, aside from its qualitative shortcomings and viral-like reproductive capacity, a growing body of research suggests e-mail’s interruptive nature is perhaps the most pressing threat to decision-making in the cognitive dimension.

Interruptions are carcinogenic to complex decision making. Cheri Speier, associate professor of information systems at Michigan State University, explains that “more frequent interruptions are likely to place a greater processing load on the decision-maker. Each interruption requires a recovery period where reprocessing of some primary task information occurs. Consequently, the number of recovery periods, the recovery time and likelihood of errors all increase as the frequency of interruption increases.” Gloria Mark, who teaches informatics at the University of California, Irvine, found that knowledge workers spend an average of only 11 minutes on a project before being interrupted.

Round-the-clock checking

According a recent study conducted by Basex Inc., an IT business consultancy whose work on information overload has repeatedly been featured in national media, “the majority of knowledge workers … tend to open new e-mail immediately or shortly after notification, rather than waiting until they have a lull in their work.” The latest Basex observation comports with other study results, including AOL’s 2007 Third Annual E-mail Addiction Survey, which found people check e-mail around the clock. Fifty-nine percent of those with portable devices check every time a new e-mail arrives. Basex says interruptions already consume about 28 percent of the average knowledge worker’s day, and e-mail-driven interruptions continue to increase, contributing to an estimated $650 billion a year in lost productivity for U.S. companies.

Several U.S. and European firms are experimenting with policies designed to curtail the inefficient use of e-mail and reinvigorate person-to-person communication. Last October, the Wall Street Journal reported that “growing numbers of employers are imposing or trying out ‘no e-mail’ Fridays or weekends.” Companies that have instituted such rules report positive reviews from the rank and file, including a Georgia-based company that found overall e-mail volume dropped 75 percent throughout the work week after imposing a no e-mail Friday policy.

From cell phones to iPods to MySpace Web pages, as IT becomes ubiquitous in peoples’ daily lives, it becomes harder for employers to draw lines between personal and official IT use in the workplace. “It is typical for workers to read their personal e-mail, make personal phone calls and even surf the Web recreationally from their offices,” says Jonathon Spira, Basex CEO and senior researcher. “Thanks to the Internet, it is taken rather for granted now that a knowledge worker should have access to cartoons, games and an enormous variety of trivial information at any time.” If a person can send an instant message or answer a cell phone in the produce aisle or church pew, the prospect of doing so “on the clock” doesn’t seem unreasonable.

Consider the following statistics:

å A 2008 survey of 20 Welsh firms found that “up to 91 percent of workplace Internet use in Wales is spent on social networking sites like Facebook.”

å Investigating Internet use at the IRS, the Treasury Department found that 51 percent of the time an employee was online was for personal use.

å Websense, an Internet filtering and Web consultant company, reports that 60 percent of employees who access the Internet at work do so for personal reasons, such as “shopping, banking, checking stocks or watching sports events, playing online poker, booking travel, and accessing pornography sites.”

å A 2007 AOL survey reported that 60 percent of people who use e-mail admit to checking their personal e-mail at work an average of three times per day.

We don’t know whether the Defense Department work force is subject to the same sort of undisciplined Internet use or the extent to which that sort of use, if it’s going on, affects mission capability. What we do know is that during Minot Air Force Base, N.D.’s second failed nuclear surety inspection, inspectors observed as a guard played video games on his cell phone instead of keeping watch. Also, according to a Defense Information Services Agency study, of the top 10 Air Force user circuits, which account for one-third of all Air Force Internet traffic, Amazon.com was the fifth-most-frequently accessed domain. Sports news sites, streaming audio and video sites, banking, humor and Internet dating sites also numbered in the top 25.

Minimizing the time wasted on nonproductive pursuits is hardly a new leadership or management challenge. What’s relatively new is the ease with which employees can access nonproductive pursuit without leaving their desks and the numberless array of activities that can keep them unproductively occupied once they wander off task. Mark notes: “The ease of access compounds the distractive potential of the Internet for information workers.” Based on a preliminary review of a study she’s conducting on Internet use, she observed, “It seems to me that most Internet use is a distraction from work. … It’s really the great distracter because it’s very easy to get wrapped up in one distraction that leads to another, and another.”

Techno creep

Militarily, our reliance on IT-based asymmetrical advantages in the sensor-to-shooter, logistics and service-delivery arenas occupies continuing prominence in strategic planning and resourcing discussions at the highest levels. However, our institutionally injudicious use of IT in support of the business end of Defense Department operations has fostered a culture among action officers, planners and decision-makers that accepts efficiency-choking and cognition-degrading data smog as just another aspect of modern bureaucracy. The ease with which information is accessed, generated and distributed has also facilitated a sort of IT-enabled mission creep — techno creep. Techno creep is the misplaced reliance on abundance of information to improve the timeliness and quality of decision-making, instead of focusing energy and resources to ensure decision-makers have the right information on which to act. The result is unintended or unaccounted for costs that degrade rather than enhance an organization’s cognitive output capacity. The problem is so ubiquitous as to be almost unrecognizable as a threat. Though academia and the business world have taken notice of the economic consequences of information overload, the threat to the cognitive dimension of the information environment doesn’t appear to have been taken up as a national security matter.

The notion that battles are won and lost in the cognitive dimension is not limited to decisions about target selection or battlefield execution. Decision dominance is a doctrinal mandate at all organizational levels and across the spectrum of conflict, wherever humans observe, orient, decide and act. Time-tested axioms inform military thinking that technological advances present not only evolving and novel opportunities but also evolving and novel threats, and contemporary IO doctrine sternly cautions us to be ever-vigilant to identify and respond to those threats as they present themselves.

Though the Internet and e-mail provide incredibly convenient ways to access, generate and transmit massive amounts of information to nearly numberless recipients, that same level of convenience may also be the paramount challenge of the information age.

The first step in countering the threat presented by information overload will require organizations to adopt and enforce a sense of what David Shipley and Will Schwalbe, authors of “Send: The Essential Guide to E-mail for Office and Home,” refer to as “digital mindedness” with respect to e-mail.

Sensible e-mail policy

While volumes have been written on fixing the e-mail problem, at the risk of overgeneralizing, the nuts and bolts of a sensible e-mail policy should include the following:

å Any tasker or suspense transmitted via e-mail must include (1) a word such as “task” or “suspense” or some other service-specific buzz phrase that informs the recipient the correspondence requires action, and (2) a clearly identified date by which the response is due.

å If the text of the e-mail is four lines or more, it must include a “bottom line up front (BLUF)” or “summary” or similar phrase, no more than two lines, that gives the recipient a general overview of what the correspondence contains. For example, a lengthy note requesting an opinion on a draft regulation or publication might contain a BLUF, right under the salutation, which reads: “request your input(s) on attached draft regulation NLT 15 Sep 08.” Details of the request, format of the desired response, etc., can then follow in additional narrative.

å A recipient should never have to open an attachment to discover what the substance of the correspondence is. For example, a lunch invitation or proposed organizational course of action described in a PowerPoint slide must be accompanied by text in the e-mail that describes who, what, when, where, etc., so that the recipient can prioritize the correspondence without having to open one or more attachments.

å Transmitting via “reply to all” or to address groups should be done sparingly, and correspondence should never be forwarded to address groups without a short BLUF or overview that allows recipients to assess very quickly whether additional attention is required. For example, award solicitations for all sorts of categories of personnel are routinely group forwarded to entire installation address groups with introductions such as “FYSA” or “for your attention.” A subject line and BLUF saying something such as “solicitation for pilot of the year award” would minimize the cognitive interruption visited on nonflying recipients of such correspondence.

å If the rules continue to permit e-mail use for unofficial purposes, such as digital water-cooler discussions or unofficial lunch invitations, those e-mails should be highlighted with the little blue down arrow provided in Microsoft Outlook, or some other immediately recognizable identifier that tells the recipient, “If you don’t read this, there will be no mission impact.”

Stick to the mission

The second step will require organizations to restrict Internet use to mission-related purposes. IT policymakers are beginning to impose variants of “black list” or “white list” rules governing Internet use. The black list prevents users from accessing certain sites or domains; the white list permits users to visit only approved sites or domains. A one-size-fits-all rule isn’t the answer.

Personnel working in different career fields require differing mission-related access to information. For example, knowledge management-centric functions, such as intelligence, criminal investigation or legal work, require unrestricted access to myriad and constantly changing sources of information, making the “white list” system unresponsive. Other less information-dependent functions may not require that same level of access. Blanket rules are conceptually easy to manage but fail to account for varying mission requirements. Overly permissive rules and policies, such as those currently in effect, do little to prevent cognition-degrading Internet abuse. The complex nature of the threat requires a complex, carefully tailored fix.

For all career fields, there’s value in allowing employees to attend to limited personal business without leaving their workplaces. In order to balance that interest against the Internet’s distractive potential, Defense Department organizations should impose strict rules permitting users to engage in such nonmission-furthering activities only before or after the established duty day or during an approved lunch period.

fog and friction

Information overload is the digital age’s fog and friction. Misused and overused e-mail degrades the quality of decision-making and denies knowledge workers access to the right information because the unstructured environment forces them to attempt to digest so much information. The scope of the impact of information overload is difficult to assess, but the fact that it’s having an impact — a profoundly negative one — seems incontrovertible. Though not specifically invoking the term “information overload,” the 9/11 Commission noted that “the U.S. government has access to a vast amount of information. … But the U.S. Government has a weak system for processing and using what it has.” We don’t know whether the same sort of informational forest-and-tree problem contributed to the headline-grabbing misrouting or mishandling of sensitive military components in recent months, but it’s difficult to conceive how such oversights could occur in a healthy, efficiently running 21st century information environment.

Addressing the information overload threat will require sustained, uninterrupted attention and some complex, high-functioning, i.e., nondegraded, decision-making. When business enterprises idly permit the hobbling of their collective decision-making capacities, they sacrifice competitive advantage and risk eventual insolvency. When governments and military organizations permit unchecked proliferation in threats to the cognitive dimension, they risk much, much more.

Maxwell’s mail overload moment

In an ironic demonstration of the reason the U.S. Defense Department needs stricter rules for e-mail use, Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., suffered an internally generated data smog outbreak in the middle of the annual Air Force Cyber Symposium, which it hosted July 15-17. More than 200 experts from across the Air Force and the Defense Department gathered to “identify strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats to the Air Force in the cyberspace domain,” according to the symposium Web site. That same week, New York City hosted the inaugural meeting of the Information Overload Research Group, a team of international academic and industry experts, whose charter is to “work together to build awareness of the world’s greatest challenge to productivity, … and help make the business case for fighting information overload.”

Just as both conferences were getting underway, an e-mail from a well-intentioned but digitally undisciplined user announcing an opportunity to participate in what the sender called “the funniest card/dice game” was sent to several recipients’ Air Force e-mail accounts. The ensuing barrage of “please take me off your list” requests — sent to huge address groups on two installations — swelled in boxes all over Maxwell, the very installation hosting the cyber conference. It would be difficult to concoct a timelier example demonstrating the need for more exacting rules regarding the use of e-mail.

COL. PETER R. MARKSTEINER is director, Air Force Legal Operations Agency, Legal Information Services, at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Air Force or Defense Department.