I just ran across an interesting article in the December 11 issue of Fortune magazine. In the While You Were Out column Stanley Bing in an article called "The 0% Solution" [this appears to be available only in the print editions] talks about the third quarter Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics report that Third Quarter nonfarm business productivity growth was zero. Although this has since been revised to +0.2% it doesn't detract from Bing's point.
In this column Bing talks about a number of things he thinks have limited productivity:
- Too many meetings - probably no one will argue with this
- Too many digital devices - they provide an overload of extraneous information
- Too much Internet - it's great for research but do you spend most of your time there on YouTube?
The one on too many digital devices in particular caught my attention:
- "Too many digital devices - iPods, BlackBerrys, cellphones, all pouring extraneous crud into our noggins. You know what's productive? A guy with a legal pad and a pencil, locked in a padded room until his work is done."
Oh so true. This statement highlight 2 simple but very important points.
- First, tools are only useful if they help you get your work done. If they don't maybe you should get rid of them.
- Second, sometimes low-tech is a better approach than high-tech. Don't always assume going high-tech is the better path.
This reminded of what someone once told me about the effect of the word processor on productivity. They didn't have any hard data to back up their argument but it does sound very believable. They stated that the advent of computerized word processing was a revolutionary breakthrough in office productivity. With it you could now get letters, reports etc. done more quickly, make changes much easier and as it further progressed you could even do it yourself eliminating labor (anyone remember a "typing pool"?). This is very believable and I presume someone has actually validated this with hard data.
The second part of their argument is less evident but still very believable. They stated that as the technology of word processing improved productivity peaked and actually decreased as the software got better! The reason for this was with the more advanced features people were spending more time on "wordsmithing" than on the actual writing. Should I highlight this? What about italics? Maybe I should add color? Indent the paragraph and add bullet points? The point of this argument is that we can let the tools and all of their features distract us from our main goal.
As the purveyors of all this feature rich technology we in IT need to carefully examine how we apply it to make sure we are actually improving and not subtly inhibiting productivity.
Bing's somewhat tongue-in-cheek article and my anecdotal observation barely scratch the surface of the relationship of IT and productivity. Fortunately, Andrew McAfee, Associate Professor at the Harvard Business School has done a very insightful analysis as described in IT and productivity growth: it was nice while it lasted? and takes the discussion beyond the issue of IT productivity tools. McAfee makes a strong case that IT has (and will) positively impact productivity as the effect of IT has shifted from merely speeding things up to transforming how we do things. He states:
"My hypothesis is that IT actually is a game-changing innovation of the same magnitude and importance as electricity, the IC engine, the shipping container, etc. As I wrote in November's Harvard Business Review, I view IT as a general purpose technology (GPT) -- an innovation so important it leads to a long-term jump in an economy's normal march of progress. "
He argues that the impact of IT is now being seeing in the growth of the segment of productivity attributed to "other contributions" rather than just working smarter with better tools (e.g. faster computers) that we have seen in the past. A increase in computing speed no longer has a significant impact since what we have now is already more than enough in most cases. McAfee points out that what IT does do now is to allow us to transform our routines with benefits in the form of (see his article for a full description of these):
- Specified with great precision and granularity
- Replicated and scaled up with high fidelity
- Propagated with confidence
- Deployed across a very large footprint
It is this kind of transformation effect that is showing up in the "other contributions" factor.
McAfee makes a strong and compelling case and one that I think makes a lot of sense. You may also want to check out a review of McAfee's article by Nicholas Carr in his blog posting Productivity Paradox 2.0.
Bringing this down from a macro level to a micro discussion, what does all of this mean to us IT managers on a day-to-day basis? I think it highlights the fact that we need to shift our focus from the tools, e.g. faster computers, upgraded software, new input devices, to the transformational impact. This is why discussions on PC's and should we migrate to Vista are at their heart, tactical discussions. Yes, tools are important but what you do with them is more important and what we need to do is to use them to transform, revolutionize the way work and not just make it go faster. That's where the real productivity gains will come from.
How do you feel about this?
[I should note some irony in Bing's article where he talks about "too many digital devices" and the impact on productivity. The footer on the article points out that you can read the latest Fortune articles downloaded to your handheld device. No doubt they believe it will lead to increased productivity.]