Productivity, Technology, and Society

U.S. worker productivity dropped in the fourth quarter of 2012, and overall worker productivity growth has lagged for the past several years, even as unit labor costs have risen. The economists’ explanations for the decline range from the lack of hiring to a surge in new hiring in the last part of 2012, as well as some highly technical considerations. Despite all the explanations and rhetoric, I have one basic question.  Given the continuing capital investment, the comparative stagnation of wages, and the vastly increased computerization and use of technology, why isn’t productivity a whole lot higher?

 Some economists claim that productivity isn’t higher because companies are trying to wring more work out of already overworked and tired workers, and that may well be true, but I think there’s another factor at work, and one that’s significantly larger… and completely overlooked by the statisticians, but not by actual middle managers, of whom there are probably too few these days.  What is that factor?  The on-the-job proliferation of personal technology use unrelated to the business at hand, and especially its use, overuse, and misuse

 There’s a fine line between use and overuse, but emails illustrate that difference.  Because emails have proliferated, many recipients either ignore more vital or important emails or are late getting to them because their electronic in-boxes are overflowing. Of course, that has created a greater use of Twitter, and that means more complex issues in emails aren’t addressed… or are delayed… or recipients just sigh and play a computer game.

 Two schools exist on the impact of social media on productivity, but the actual studies are limited.  On the one hand, the business research firm Basex issued a study declaring the productivity cost of workplace interruptions, primarily employee abuse and misuse of social media, at $650 billion a year, and a British study by, claimed a 14 billion pound annual loss to UK firms from time spent on social media. Another British study found that that, on average, employees spend almost 20% of their workweek  involved in personal online activities rather than on work. In 2012, Americans racked up 74 billion minutes, 20% of their time on social media sites, according to Nielsen/Incite’s Social Media Report for 2012, and it’s more than likely that a significant fraction of that time was on the company clock, so to speak.

 On the other hand, there are several studies claiming that blocking social media creates demoralized employees, retards communications, and actually costs industry billions annually.

 I’m not sure I trust anyone’s statistics completely, but I do know that I have to spend more time than I’d like scanning emails that purport to be useful and discarding them – and that’s not counting those in the spam file, which I also have to scan, because the filters still throw out mail I should be getting.  I also know local employers who continually are frustrated by finding employees on personal cellphones and social media sites when they should be working. My wife has colleagues who can’t get around to what they’re supposed to be doing because they’re always tweeting or on their cellphones.

 And when you have a whole generation of students who insist on continual communication, either through texting, tweets, or cellphones, I have the feeling that we’re not going to see a great deal of productivity improvement in the years ahead.

3 thoughts on “Productivity, Technology, and Society”

  1. wayne kernochan says:

    I’ll add to the discussion only to suggest some ways I have found that twitter could be used semi-productively in my business.

    Briefly, I attend a lot of vendor presentations of their products, and am expected to say something interesting about ways these are different and useful to IT or consumers. The money is typically in longer in-depth pieces probing just how this “value-add” can be evoked.

    Vendors want Twitter comments on their presentations in the belief that this creates “buzz”. At the same time, the twitter format is too short to deliver believable content about differentiation of complex products — and the number of interrelated products a company is introducing in a presentation grows over time. A typical 45-minute presentation now includes 2-3 major and 8-10 minor upgrades/introductions.

    My solution is to “fork” my notes. One tine of the fork is my notes on the presentation, the basis for a later blog post or more, notes that lay out the striking differences and draw immediate conclusions. The other tine of the fork is what is worthy of note and isn’t core to my basic assessment — “more than 100K IT shops have already adopted this product – strong claim to unusual initial acceptance”, for example, or “wonder if can be used to enhance event-driven architecture” (not a feature of the argument, more a future possibility that the vendor may or may not endorse). These go on Twitter, and I can typically generate 5-6 of these per 45-minute presentation, more than enough to provide significant added content to readers.

    My other use, which lots of analysts do more or less, is simply to advertise my blog posts — which, like yours, I gather, are longer and contain more content than is typical. Without over-promising, I hope, I just say “some different thoughts on agile exploratory testing, potentially a very useful approach” and the blog url. What I don’t do that may others do, is cite others’ work in the tweet itself — because so many others are doing this so often instead of generating their own commentary that it begins to seem that they have no content to contribute, just the ability to recycle others’ thoughts. Btw, common practice is to make the same comment on twitter, linkedin, and facebook.

    Other than that, nothing as yet. If it’s not going to be productive — and simply encouraging others via linkedin and blogs with regard to climate change turns out to be about all I can handle — then I just don’t use Twitter. But I’m still on the lookout for other ways.

  2. Tim says:

    Wayne brilliantly encapsulates the modern method. Not only in IT, but also in politics. Friends of mine who are active in the latter find it necessary to be active members of Twitter. But they are so worried about legislation or career, that their content is effectively NUL. It comprises mainly forwarding other people’s ideas. However they laud the number of followers they have as they consider this to be a real indication of their own value. So wrong.

    To LEM’s point, in my experience it is middle management who have contributed to inefficiency. The number of emails received is in direct proportion to the number of middle managers involved in my programmes. Often a lot of the emails were really concerned with power politics at peer level (the cc: list syndrome). If you want to have more productivity, then I believe you actually need less middle management, and more team leaders.

    Back to Wayne and IT : I would state, as having spent far too long in IT, that agile testing (aka fail fast) is normally a cover for poor documentation and inadequate testing coverage , especially if conducted off-shore where the QMS is less verifiable. Combined with DSDM and RAD, it is a recipe for a failed IT project. Of course that is my experience and required a lot of remedial action and quality checks at additional cost.

  3. wayne kernochan says:

    @lem: my apologies, it seems as if I did take matters off topic after all. If it helps, my own experience supports the idea that major use of facebook, linkedin, twitter, or texting at work decreases productivity. Email is less clear, because I have (as an old email system designer) been careful to restrict inbound emails as far as possible to “new ideas” and interaction with clients/prospects. It takes me 30 minutes a day to wade through it and do initial replies, but it covers communication not possible by phone and generates new ideas much more effectively.

    @tim poorly phrased on my part. If it helps, I was referring to the idea of “agile exploratory testing”, which (as far as the vague descriptions I see tell me) is the idea of supplementing regular testing with attempts on the part of testers to try to break the system on their own hook. Btw, I am no fan of DSDM either – especially because I view it as pretty unagile. For more, you’d have to see my stringent definition of agile way back in

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