Campfire Stories. Some tales from Nathan’s unusual career.

I know, this is a business site, so it’s expected to be businesslike and bo-o-o-ring… but it is also my own site, and ever since I wrote my first home page in 1995 I’ve been of the opinion that a site should have a soul, and its soul is in the stories it tells. So here are some tales from my interesting career as a problem solver and change agent.

Flames of campfire

Pick your story:

The tale of the accidental guru

     Or, how a nice physicist like me came to be an Information Overload expert

The funny thing is, I’d never set out to be an IO guru. I’d studied applied physics, and joined Intel as a VLSI engineer. I had no idea that 30 years later I’d be known as a global expert in the battle to curb Information Overload. What’s physics got to do with that?!

Yet here I am now, helping people worldwide work better and live better, and lovin’ it. And it all started in 1994, when I was in Intel’s Israel IT group. We’d just moved from mainframes to PCs, and I realized that many of my coworkers were having a hard time with the latter; so I invented for myself the “Computing Productivity manager” role, assigned to help people use PCs more effectively. With those PCs came the widespread use of email – which had seemed like a pure blessing at first…

… until a coworker told me that he’d heard a senior manager declare that he’ll delete on sight any email with attachments. When I went to talk to the man, I found him very upset with his Inbox! I decided to investigate, and discovered that a major problem was brewing, resulting not only from technical issues, but also from fascinating behavioral issues around how people were using, abusing and misusing the mail in the social context of the workplace.

Armed with the data, I set out to develop a comprehensive solution program, which included software, skill training, and behavior change components. This was applied successfully across Intel’s Israel site; I became known there as the guy worrying about email loads – and there things remained while I turned my attention to other projects. Then, in 1999, word got to our regional HQ in the UK, and I was invited to deploy the program there; the results were excellent, and so my fame now extended to Europe. More Intel sites asked to be included, and in 2000 we deployed my program to the entire corporation. Very exciting! Now I was a worldwide email guru – inside Intel, at any rate.

And then lightning struck: a manager in the US told a Fast Company reporter about my work, and they published an article about it. They accidentally (they claimed) cited my email in the article, and suddenly I was overloaded (but in a good way!) with messages from scores of organizations across the planet: everyone was groaning under their mail load; everyone wanted to learn what we’d done. And because I like to collaborate, I started talking and exchanging insights. I ended up helping other corporations launch similar programs, sharing the tools we’d developed to train our users, and – not least – making new friends.

Which is how in 2006 I was visiting a colleague at Microsoft’s research group, and we decided to invite a score of leading IO researchers to a workshop in Redmond; this was truly delightful, allowing people from academia and industry to exchange views and probe new directions. In 2008 we took it a step further and incorporated the Information Overload Research Group, of which I was elected president. Between this and coverage of my own continuing work in the worldwide press I can now truly say I’ve attained planetary IO guru nature. And all because a friend had told me, all those years ago, that a senior manager was deleting his emails in frustration!  🙂

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The tale of the emancipated cube dwellers

     Or,  how I used Telecommuting to give people some balance

Most of my good ideas (such as they are) come from a chance remark. This one was made by a guy I met in the mid-90’s at a conference in New Orleans. He’d mentioned that his boss was forcing his subordinates to work from home once a week. I asked, “Why force?” And he replied, “We asked him, and he said, I want you guys to work!

This was an “Aha!” moment, and it set me thinking about our own hectic workplace, with its endless distractions. When I returned to Intel I found that our IT group had looked at Work From Home… from a technical perspective of modems, bandwidth, and the like. They hadn’t been asked to look at the behavioral aspects: Who can telecommute? What will it do to teamwork? To management style? To family life? All that was not in IT’s space… unfortunately the HR folks, in whose space it arguably was, were not into technology. We had a gap. I love gaps.

So I proposed to management that I be allowed to lead a small team with reps from IT, HR, Legal, Engineering, Finance, and academia, that will look at the implications of Telecommuting. Evidently I made a good case, and off we were. My all-volunteer team worked for months to study Telecommuting, its pros, cons and precedents worldwide, and to define an optimal policy for Intel. We concluded that suitable people should be allowed to work from home one day per week, and had defined Best Practices regarding work content, training, equipment, management practices, monitoring, and team interactions. We then validated the methodology successfully in three pilot groups, before securing management approval to deploy widely. Our knowledge workers would at last be freed from the old cubicle paradigm!

And so Telecommuting entered Intel’s culture, and a good thing too: our study had confirmed that it does wonders for productivity and quality of life, increases satisfaction of the telecommuters, their peers, managers and customers, gives the company much needed flexibility in today’s uncertain world, and helps the environment to boot. Of course you need to tread carefully, as with any cultural change… but our diligent preparation had paid off and we saw no problems. In fact, we got a good deal of interest in our methodology from the media and from other companies.

Of the many things I’ve done (so far) in my career, I like to say that this one should earn me a ticket to heaven. After all, I’ve freed a myriad people from their cubicles, enabling them to balance the demands of a hi-tech job with the flexibility needed by life and family. People now had one day a week where they could concentrate and work undisturbed; and a contingency, like having your child catch the flu, was no longer a stressful logistic nightmare: you could take the kid to the doctor in the morning, and work a full day’s worth from home later in the day. It was a Win/Win, and years later, many of them still tell me they owe me for it…

R-Arrow  For more insight on Telecommuting read The Makings of a Good Corporate Telecommuting Program.

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The tale of the Jump Start offering

     Or, my search for a workable consulting model

Leaving the cube farm to become a consultant was an exciting change, but it had its learning curve. I knew I had what it takes: after 26 years working on core problems at a leading corporation I had more than enough valuable insight to share with my future clients. What I didn’t know, it turned out, was how to package the knowledge into offerings people would feel comfortable with.

Being best known as an expert on Information Overload, my initial notion was that I should help large companies – like the one I’d come from – with their messaging load. I promptly approached senior managers in some of the country’s larger organizations and found them very sympathetic to the idea. The problem was that when asked to propose a solution I suggested interventions involving the entire workforce, multiple workshops, and an equally large investment. I discovered that such a proposal tends to require very lengthy deliberation and negotiation. Hardly a good model for starting a new business!

The solution came to me when a friend suggested I package my knowledge in a self-contained seminar that anyone could attend; and after sleeping on this a while I came up with what I call my Jump Start offering. This is optimized for a manager who wants to achieve a change in email behavior in their group but lacks the knowledge of how to best go about it. It comprises an alignment meeting with the manager, followed by a 2-hour session in their staff meeting, where I impart to the attendees everything they need to know to be able to hold an informed discussion about the problem in their organization, and to decide on an course of action. I empower them to do this by sharing succinctly the essence of what I learned in 18 years about IO: its root causes, the solutions tried elsewhere, which worked and which failed and why, and the critical success factors for a solution. Short, sweet, and far less “threatening” than a massive training drive across the workforce!

To my relief this idea turned out to work quite well. These days I offer organizations a range of solutions, from a simple overview lecture to this Jump Start session to long term consulting; and the Jump Start is really my favorite of these offerings, since it enables management to decide for itself how to proceed to best effect. And if they conclude that they can benefit from engaging me to advise their project team in whatever they choose to do, that’s fine too!…

R-Arrow  More details on the Jump Start session

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The tale of ITshareNet

     Or, how I broke through the corporate perimeter

I was frustrated. Everybody out there wanted to learn about my work, but there were all those barriers in place to prevent my sharing it!

This was after Fast Company had published a description of my first email overload solution, and I was flooded with requests for details. Now, it certainly makes sense that a company would decline to share its top secret technology; but coping with the email flood was not Intel’s core business, and we stood to gain a lot by exchanging our insights for those of other companies. However, getting approval to tell a peer in another company how we did something was an uphill battle. Not that anyone could see a valid objection – but it was kind of unheard of to share knowledge across organizational lines. Whoever would think of such a weird idea?!?

Actually, I would – and did. I envisioned a “knowledge clearinghouse”, a moderated web site where IT groups in many organizations could upload their insights, white papers, training materials and homegrown software tools so that others could access them under an Open Source license. To make it happen I had to get management approval – and the best way I saw there was to create a coalition with some other companies that would collaborate on this site, making it an open initiative that would deserve the trust of the IT community.

It took some time to line up the coalition and negotiate a site policy that could meet the approval of all those lawyers… but ultimately, with patience, we had a site which we called ITshareNet, with eight founding members – all respected corporations and academic institutions. Now IT professionals anywhere could benefit from the wisdom of their peers and upload the fruit of their own labors – as I promptly did. What was even better, some people out there saw my solutions, liked them, and collaborated with me to improve them further; a true Win/Win.

One interesting byproduct was that we all had to learn an important lesson in Knowledge Management: how to package a knowledge asset in a way that makes it company-agnostic and replicable. Not only did you have to strip out all company logos, internal references and jargon; you had to put in placeholders for them, and create “assembly instructions” to tell the other company how to modify and adapt the program so that it would work in a possibly quite different new environment. It was a fascinating learning experience!

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