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Paradox of Real-Time Data: No Time Left for Business

Up-to-the-minute updates were supposed to make you more efficient. What the heck happened?
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An email, social media notification, or text comes and--bang!--you're on top of it. With the help of your smartphone, you're the master of all things happening at this moment. Or at least you try to be.

Except, as writer Matthew Ingram at GigaOM learned recently, a connectedness addiction isn't necessarily a good thing. His lesson is a good one for an entrepreneur or, frankly, anyone in the workforce: Sometimes less is more. Especially when you're talking about inherent distractions.

Ruled by Notifications

Ingram shifted from using an iPhone to an Android handset. His motivation was to get beyond Apple's carefully tended garden walls, but what he eventually noticed was a more subdued user experience, which was great for productivity.

Here's how he described keeping an iPhone at hand for three years:

Not only did certain apps (like Twitter) wake up the iPhone screen even when the device was sleeping to flash a message, but every icon for every app also had mini-notifications built in, so that I could see at a glance how many emails had come in since the last time I had checked, or how many Facebook messages, etc. Each icon had a little number next to it that wouldn't go away until I opened the app and dealt with the messages or updates (there are also banner updates that can be individually configured for different apps).

It was a way to stay on top of everything in the default mode, except he became obsessive about it. Count goes up on email? Check it. More tweets? Scan through them. Facebook activity? Get hopping. All that became a distraction for more important things he needed to do.

But this isn't really about smartphones or productivity. The ability to get real-time information on everything is a larger trend in business. Dashboards constantly give you the latest variations in metrics. Alerts come from hardware and applications all alerting you that one thing or another happened.

But it's a trap, very much like following the minute-by-minute movement of the stock market can be. There is a fair amount of variation that is normal. You can't possibly address all changes and shouldn't.

Managing the Minutia

Decades ago, W. Edwards Demining, one of the inventors of statistical quality control in manufacturing (the discipline that helped Japanese technology and automobile companies leapfrog U.S. competitors) created an experiment as a teaching tool. Someone would hold little pellets and try to drop them on a target on the floor below. The pellets would tend to group--until the person was told to adjust aim after every drop to hit the target. When that happened, the pellets scattered everywhere but the bull's eye.

The more avidly the people in this experiment tried to control their aim minute by minute, the more they undermined their ability to control anything. Similarly, the more you try to manage and monitor the minutiae of your business every day, the greater the chance that you'll actually lose control.

If you can loosen the reins a bit and see how the business is actually running, rather than trying to change it in minute by minute, you can eventually understand how the system works and improve it. Also, you reduce some unnecessary pressure on employees who otherwise can get burnt out and tire of constant tweaking.

That's the sneaky problem about real-time monitoring. Yes, it can help at times, but it can also start to feel like your business has decided to over-share on its own internal social network.

So, reconsider the real-time systems you think you need. Set significant and meaningful threshold levels at which point you know something requires action. Don't obsess over the minutiae of dashboards, as it's really the trends and longer-term performance of your business that is important. And, for heaven's sake, put away the smartphone and the tablet for a while. Sure, you'll be plugged into a virtual world of information, but at the expense of being detached from the real world of action that you inhabit.

Last updated: Mar 1, 2013

ERIK SHERMAN | Columnist

Erik Sherman's work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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