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Work fragmentation as common practice: The paradox of IT support

Gloria Mark
Associate Professor, Department of Informatics, University of California, Irvine


Newell-Simon Hall 1305 (Michael Mauldin Auditorium)


A paradox exists in most current designs of information technology systems. The focus is on supporting distinct tasks such as document-production or email use rather than being organized to support larger connected themes in work. I will present data from the detailed observation of 24 information workers that shows that they experience fragmentation in their work as common practice. Users face a burden to integrate fragmented information into cohesive task structures that make sense to them.

Observations of managers, analysts, and developers over a 13-month period were conducted in a financial services organization. We consider work fragmentation to have two components: the length of time spent in an activity before switching to another activity, and the frequency of interruptions. We examined work fragmentation along three dimensions: type of interruption, effect of collocation, and resumption of work. We found work to be highly fragmented: people average about three minutes on a task and average about two minutes using any electronic tool or paper document before switching. When interrelated tasks are combined (into what we call working spheres), then 57% of people’s working spheres are interrupted, and people average about 11 minutes in a working sphere before switching to another. People are just as likely to interrupt themselves as to be interrupted by an external source. Collocated and distributed workers experience work fragmentation differently: collocated people work longer before switching activities but are interrupted more. An average of more than two intervening activities occur before an interrupted activity is resumed, and interruptions can be nested. The data illustrates the extent of work fragmentation and argues that information technology design needs to support people in maintaining continuity of their working spheres.

Speaker's Bio

Gloria Mark is an Associate Professor in the Department of Informatics, University of California, Irvine, since 2000. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology at Columbia University and worked as a research scientist at Electronic Data Systems and at the German National Institute for Information Technology (GMD) in Bonn, Germany. Her main research interest is in Computer-Supported Cooperative Work. Her current projects include large-scale distributed collaboration, worklife management, and collaboration in crisis situations. Other research interests include technology adoption by distributed teams, empirical studies of requirements analysis, collaborative information visualization, and nomad workers. She serves on the editorial boards of Computer Supported Cooperative Work, and e-commerce Quarterly, and has served on numerous program committees and also reviewing panels for the National Science Foundation.

Speaker's Website

Susan Fussell