Disturbing Questions About Productivity and Technology

Have you heard the standard cliche: “Necessity is the Mother of Invention?” In business productivity and technology, in my experience at least,  the old standard is reversed: the new truth is that “Invention is the Mother of Necessity.”

Huge Changes in Productivity and Technology

For example:

  1. Spreadsheets and Budgeting: When I started in business analysis back in the middle 1970s we didn’t have spreadsheets, and a budget was rarely more than a list of numbers on a yellow pad processed with a calculator and a pen. Then came Visicalc, and shortly after that Lotus 1-2-3 and then Excel. Now, not at all by coincidence, everybody in business does a whole lot more budgeting and spreadsheets than we ever would have imagined back then.So what’s happened is that because spreadsheets made budgeting more accessible, the world started demanding more budgets. To me, this is a good thing. Budgeting is good for business. You could argue, however, that maybe the world of small and medium-sized business was better off when the world summarized budgets into a few key items.Ultimately, in this case, I think it’s obvious that we do more budgets because budgets are easier to do
  2. Desktop publishing and business documents: I’m pretty sure I’ve seen the same thing happen with desktop publishing. Before desktop publishing appeared with the Macintosh and the Apple Laserwriter in the middle 1980s, people put business correspondence onto simple pages printed onto letterhead paper. Nowadays we take desktop publishing techniques for granted. People routinely merge graphics and text onto simple memos and letters and standard business documents, without thinking twice about it.
  3. From paper to online: Speaking of documents, the idea of the paperless office was first popular in the 1980s but is still largely a dream. I checked for this post, and was surprised to discover that the use of printer and copy paper in the U.S. continues to grow. What? What about the cloud, accounting and bookkeeping online, electronic documents, and email, all of which is moving to mobile phones? It hasn’t cut into paper consumption. Yet. Well, to be fair, it has in my office … but not for the world, or the U.S., according to available statistics. Why is that?
  4. 24×7 connectivity and availability: How often do you get the delightful experience of somebody complaining that they had to wait an hour or two to hear from you, or get your answer, or your response to some question or business issue? It may seem odd now, but it wasn’t that long ago that people were disconnected for hours at a time because they were in a meeting, or driving, doing errands, or having a life. A two-hour drive was two hours alone, to collect ideas and review thoughts. There’s research indicating we’d all be better off with an hour or two a day of reflection, meaning silence, dealing with thoughts. But take a look at the line of people waiting for coffee. They are all connected.

Did This Improve Productivity?

That’s an interesting question. We can answer this for ourselves, anecdotally, and probably come up with a better answer than what the statistics give us. Is budgeting better now than in the days of yellow pads and calculators? Are we communicating better? Are we getting more done? There was a time when I would have been tempted to say no, that it hasn’t improved productivity.  More recently I’ve changed my mind.  Having built a business makes me sure that we benefit from the power of more detailed budgeting, and running through the daily process of management made me pretty sure that business documents are generally better communicators with desktop publishing than without.

Statistics are very hard to work with in this area. I’ve found that the average hours worked per week have declined significantly since the 1950s; but so has the work itself, right? We were an assembly line nation in 1955, and now we’re a keyboard and thumb nation. Who’s counting the constant availability by phone?

US Work Week

On the other hand, there’s this, from Why is Productivity so Weak, in the New York Times, just last month:

“Despite constant advances in software, equipment and management practices to try to make corporate America more efficient, actual economic output is merely moving in lock step with the number of hours people put in, rather than rising as it has throughout modern history.

“We could chalk that up to a statistical blip if it were a single year; productivity data are notoriously volatile. But this has been going on for some time. From 2011 through 2015, the government’s official labor productivity measure shows only 0.4 percent annual growth in output per hour of work. That’s the lowest for a five-year span since the 1977-to-1982 period, and far below the 2.3 percent average since the 1950s.”

US Productivity Trends

Here too, what is productivity? The labor department has a global measure of output per hour, but that’s not the way we work anymore.

I still worry that the increased productivity that technology offers us has just raised the bar of what’s acceptable. Now that we can do the numbers powerfully, we do more numbers, which drowns us in numbers. Now that we can do documents that look way better, without the hassle of publishing and layout, we demand better looking documents. And now that we can communicate from anywhere, at any time, we demand more communication.

What do you think? Are we better off?


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