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Hidden Integration Benefits - Reducing Brain Drain

Hidden Integration Benefits - Reducing Brain Drain

As SaaS integrators, our mantra is that integrations save time. But how they save businesses time varies in some surprising ways.

One of the main appeals of a business integration is that it creates a "shortcut" in a business process. Take a hypothetical CRM and accounting system integration. Suppose the manual process is that when a CRM lead becomes a new customer, a salesperson notifies accounting, and then another person reads the CRM and then creates the new customer record in the accounting system. An integration between these applications eliminates this part of the process, illustrated as:

Before After
1. marketing creates lead in CRM 1. marketing creates lead in CRM
2. marketing updates lead to become a customer 2. marketing updates lead to become a customer
3. marketing notifies accounting of new customer 3. integration detects new customer in CRM, creates customer in accounting system
4. accounting reads notification
5. accounting logs in to CRM to see customer info
6. accounting enters the customer info accounting system

This frees up the marketing and the accounting staff to focus on other tasks. Not surprisingly, one way that integrations save time is by eliminating work, especially repetitive data entry tasks.

But integrations can also save time in an unexpected way. By reducing the number of applications an employee has to toggle through, an integration actually can make them more efficient during their workday.

A lot of us spend our day having to switch constantly between many different applications. Imagine a managed service provider project where a helpdesk tech is spending time configuring a firewall. They have to toggle between their firewall application and the application they're using to track their time. They may check their email as they get notifications about other helpdesk tasks. They may need to manually submit their time for approval, log their activity on a MS Teams channel, look up a troubleshooting item on a website, etc. That's a lot of switching between applications!

Most people say they are more productive when they have uninterrupted time to focus on a task. Is this actually right? I was interested in delving a bit deeper into this "switch cost" inefficiency [1]. In one business study, a group actually tracked a large number of users across a variety of different positions in Fortune 500 companies to try to determine how often people switched between applications during their workday. In a staggering result, they found that, on average, each person switched a staggering 1,200 times per day [2]! Moreover, they found the productivity lost for a user to switch between two applications (i.e. the average time it took their brain to get reoriented onto the new task) was a little over 2 seconds per switch.

In other words, the switching itself causes brain fatigue and makes people less efficient throughout the workday.

I was initially skeptical of the 1,200 times per day number. But take a moment to think about how many applications you interact with. (And no, you may not count "browser" as one application). Each TAB in a browser is an application. So one way to approximate this in the modern office is to look at how many tabs you have open at a time, and ask how many times per hour do I bounce back and forth between tabs?

For example, at any given time, I have at least the following tabs up:

  • Business email.
  • Trello kanban board for internal projects.
  • Another Trello kanban board for my active client project.
  • A VOIP phone app for answering calls.
  • Google Calendar
  • Toggl time tracking app.

Add to that tally at least 4-20 more tabs containing documentation or other project-specific reference information I need to have handy.

...and that's just my browser. Also competing for attention:

  • Zoom meeting app
  • Slack/Microsoft Teams
  • Password Manager
  • Code IDE
  • Database Explorer

Suddenly these numbers don't seem so far-fetched. What is undeniable, even with some hefty error bars, is that switching represents a large dent in productivity. Up to 8% of the day is lost to brain inefficiency. Of course, some might argue that they are "excellent multitaskers" and immune to these negative effects from switching. However, there's significant evidence to the contrary [3, 5]. In fact, self-reported "good multitaskers" may actually be worse at multitasking than average [4]!

Now that we know about switching cost "brain drain", how can we measure its cost to the business? What does one full percentage point of productivity cost a business per employee? A conservative estimate would be to simply multiply the employee's salary. For example:

1% * $60,000/year = $600/year per employee

So, when you're considering an integration (or any other activity that reduces switching), you probably have a pretty good idea of both the number of affected employees and their approximate salaries. You can use this approach to gain insight into order-of-magnitude costs/benefits of improved productivity. Will an integration result in a full percentage point improvement in efficiency? It depends, but if you're considering automating a repetitive, complex, or error-prone task, a 1% improvement may actually be on the low side.

In summary, integrations free up time by eliminating tasks; allowing employees time to do something more productive. And, they also can make employees incrementally more productive by reducing eliminating switching inefficiencies (a.k.a. brain drain)!

Further Reading

(1) Switching Costs. (2006). American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/topics/research/multitasking

(2) Murty, R., Dadlani, S. & Das, R. (2022). Harvard Business Review. How Much Time and Energy Do We Waste Toggling Between Applications? https://hbr.org/2022/08/how-much-time-and-energy-do-we-waste-toggling-between-applications

(3) Hall, J. (2022). Forbes. The Biggest Culprit Behind Your Lagging Productivity: You. https://www.forbes.com/sites/johnhall/2020/05/03/the-biggest-culprit-behind-your-lagging-productivity-you

(4) Madore, K. & Wagner, A. (2019). Cerebrum. Multicosts of Multitasking. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7075496/

(5) Miller, E. (2017) Radius Program. Multitasking: Why Your Brain Can't Do It and What You Should Do About It. https://radius.mit.edu/programs/multitasking-why-your-brain-cant-do-it-and-what-you-should-do-about-it