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The mirage of web-based productivity – are we doing less with more?

A New Yorker article I read lately – What has happened to the internet productivity miracle? – has got me thinking: Has our quest for productivity become the mirage in the desert for our age?

Everywhere we turn we’re promised an oasis on the horizon, seduced into thinking that more tools (an app for every which way the wind blows, for example) and the internet’s 24/7 availability of everything will lead us as a matter of course to getting more done, more efficiently. Somewhere along the line we’ve internalised the belief that, through greater productivity, largely brought about by technology and the web, we can – eventually – achieve a utopian state where we clock our to-do list, make good on all the demands on our time, throw our Windows Phones in the river and make a break for the tropical island that taunts us daily from our PCs’ wallpaper.

But there’s something wrong with the productivity line we’ve swallowed. We’re getting busier, and the island getaways have never been more distant. We have more tools at our disposal than ever before, and – coincidence? – we’re also increasingly time-poor.

Since I read the article, I’ve hatched the makings of a theory. (It’s half-baked and no doubt full of gross generalisations, so if you would care to help me refine it, please do so in the comments below.) Here’s what I’ve been mulling over. Whether we’re doing more with more, or less with more, in this world of digital abundance one thing’s fairly clear: we’re definitely not doing more with less.

Because what the web – and all its attendant tools – gives us with one hand, with the other hand it takes away. There are big productivity gains to be made on some fronts, huge losses on others. And the net result? We may be spinning the hamster wheel faster, decking it out with brighter lights (and maybe even expecting it to churn butter while it’s turning, just because it can), but on the whole it’s not helping us get where we’re going any more quickly.  


The magical P word: a marketer’s perspective

I work in marketing – technology marketing, to be specific – and in my day I’ve penned my fair share of case studies. I’ve talked to my fair share of CIOs, with the paint on their shiny new technology solutions not quite dry. And one of the things we’re always looking to talk about – the pay dirt of any case study worth its salt – is evidence of return on investment. And in every case (study), without fail, this ROI comes down to productivity: how X solution makes you/your business/your people more productive. Sure, there are all kinds of other considerations, but productivity is always right at the top of the list.

I should probably clarify that the kinds of case studies I’m talking about here cover enterprise applications – anything from your customer or financial relationship management system to your intranet or website or a custom-developed solution to help your workers in the office or in the field, on premise or in the cloud. Pretty much anything you want to do to make the boat go faster (or should we say operate more productively) in a work capacity. And because the web touches just about everything, our enterprise solutions are also most often web solutions in some capacity, too.

So when I read the New Yorker article and pondered the prospect that we’re actually becoming less productive, despite being caught up in the throes of what can only be called productivity mania, and despite being tooled up to the nines, I started to worry. What if all this productivity I’ve been writing about over the years is pure ruse? What if the only thing that has been increasing all this time is the complexity of a thing, not the efficiency the thing can bring about?

I spent a number of troubling days trying to reconcile this conflicting information. In my fact-finding case study missions I’ve seen some fantastic examples of technology-enabled productivity, the kind of stuff that makes you think that technology really can change the world. And surely, then, with well thought-out solutions like these in the world, we can’t be less productive? Online banking saves me a trip to the bank; I can do all my Christmas shopping in the space of a single evening in front of the TV; and I can locate all my vital information and documents from any device, anywhere in the world just as long as I can remember my password (sometimes a stretch, although I’m sure there’s an app that I just haven’t discovered yet). How can these things not be making us more productive on the whole?

And then, a few days into my quandary, my theory started taking shape.


One step forward for productivity, two steps back with Farmville

I realised that it’s not that our productivity tools aren’t helping us to be productive. We have productivity-enhancing devices and technologies in spades. The issue is – and here’s the thing – we also have unproductivity in spades. And, as is the way with opposites, they cancel each other out, or at least significantly diminish any positive effect.

John Cassidy’s article points to a candid paper by economist Robert Gordon, who observes that:

Many of the inventions that replaced tedious and repetitive clerical labor with computers happened a long time ago, in the 1970s and 1980s. Invention since 2000 has centered on entertainment and communication devices that are smaller, smarter, and more capable, but do not fundamentally change labor productivity or the standard of living in the way that electric light, motor cars, or indoor plumbing changed it.

The iPod replaced the CD Walkman; the smartphone replaced the garden-variety ‘dumb’ cellphone with functions that in part replaced desktop and laptop computers; and iPads provided further competition with traditional personal computers. These innovations were enthusiastically adopted, but they provided new opportunities for consumption on the job and in leisure hours rather than a continuation of the historical tradition of replacing human labor with machines.

(Emphasis my own.)

I’m trying to think of an analogy. Say you are in possession of a brand new invention, cutlery that facilitates food eating like food eating has never been facilitated before. But you’re also at a 24-hour smorgasbord, so although you have this newfangled better-than-ever cutlery, you find yourself dawdling at the finger food table long after you’re full. (And you can’t actually remember how you got to the finger food table in the first place; it appears you just drifted there.) And then you realise that you can’t remember where you left your state of the art cutlery. And then someone you haven’t seen before pops up from under the table and starts filling you in on the last twenty years of their life, all in txt spk. And while that’s happening you see out of the corner of your eye that one of the waitresses is holding a sign for ridiculously cheap sunglasses, but only for the next 48 hours…


Painting by numbers

At one stage in my article-digesting process it dawned on me that these were American stats. Maybe our stats would paint an entirely different picture. (Naïve, I know, but you can’t blame me for hoping.) So I did some digging for numbers closer to home. I should point out I’m not much of a numbers person. In fact I distrust numbers immensely a) for my general ineptitude with them and b) for their ability to be manipulated and bamboozle the masses (the same could be said of words, of course, but I like words). So take the following as one piece of information. There are no doubt far more specific and more comprehensive indexes we could be using here (again, if you know of any, please join in below).

I looked up New Zealand’s productivity statistics on the New Zealand Statistics website, and this graph was of particular interest to me:


New Zealand productivity statistics. 1996-2012.


 In particular the middle line – our multifactor productivity – was of interest. Multifactor productivity is a measure of a combination of ‘technological progress, efficiency gain, deviation from constant returns to scale, unobserved change in capacity utilisation, or departure from economy-wide long-run equilibrium’. Going off this chart alone, at first glance, the news isn’t drastic. There’s no major plummet, and no great climb. As far as technological progress and efficiency gain goes, in 2012 we were about as productive as we were in the year 2000. But then when you consider the advances we’ve made in more than a decade, and to consider that we’re only as productive as we were 12 years ago – before Web 2.0, before the mobile revolution and the consumerisation of the cloud and big data and all those radical, life-changing things – it’s more than a little bit anti-climactic, isn’t it?

Of course, as John Cassidy’s New Yorker article pre-empts, defenders of internet productivity would no doubt level the assertion that we need to take the long view, that productivity gains have not yet truly been felt because it is too soon. This may or may not be the case, but the thing I want to know is: just how fast does the hamster wheel have to go, and for how much longer, before we start winning back time rather than keeping on losing it to a big black hole? And what do we need to be doing differently in order for this to happen?


Consuming isn’t doing

Okay, so consuming is actually doing. It’s a verb, at least. But it doesn’t give us a head start where productivity is concerned. I’d actually wager the complete opposite: that consumption is an impediment to getting stuff done. We’re in a world awash with digital information and our appetite for sucking it all in is pretty impressive. We may know more than ever before. We may be more connected. But does knowing translate to doing? Or are we tricking ourselves into thinking that all the time we’re spending in digital sponge mode will somehow count towards a more productive end state? I for one, as a humble information worker, sometimes come unstuck in the face of all this information and the multitude of possibilities it offers up. And, to make matters worse, I also suffer from digital FOMO (fear of missing out). If I blink I might miss a crucial tweet. And if I don’t keep my ear to the ground, who knows what gems are going to pass me by, lost for all time, never to pass me by again?  

In this respect I’m a digital prisoner of my own making. Maybe prisoner is a bit extreme (unless you’ve been reading a whole lot of European critical theorists, in which case it’s about right). But I do, from time to time, hear the echo of my mother’s admonitions to teenage me, telling me to step away from the computer and go outside. Only now she would never dream of telling me this, a. because I’m officially (apparently) an adult and b. because I have an all-too-easy comeback – my computer is symbolic of my livelihood, the chief productivity tool in my arsenal. And even if I did turn it off and go outside, well, I’ll just take my phone with me and get every digital thing I could possible need on that, in miniature.

This consumption-vs-doing thing is what Seth Godin calls the spectator problem. Where productivity is concerned, lurking is shirking. And the internet has made consummate lurkers of us all (or at least the 90% of us who aren’t heavy or intermittent internet contributors, according to the lurker pyramid).

So, to the big questions: Are we doing less with more? And – if we are – what’s it going to take to buck the trend?

Posted by: Katy Sweetman, Marketing Director, Empired Group | 24 April 2013

Tags: productivity, consumption, digital, Technology, technology evolution, time poor

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