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Productivity and the Limits of Measurement

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Increasing productivity at work through “big data” may sound attractive. But there are limits to measurement. We’re at a crossroads: workers as dignified human beings or as mindless automatons.

The subject of increased employee productivity has been a topic here on The Methodology Blog since the beginning. But lately, we’ve been talking about the relationship between how much you get done and how much freedom you have. In fact, there is a strong relationship between increasing employee productivity and increasing employee freedom.

Employee Productivity and Freedom

© Flickr user Josef Grunig

When I commented on Yahoo’s telecommuting policy reversal, my big concern is that this sounded like a culture of control. I wrote: “Should a company trying to invent the future get stuck in the thinking of the past?”

I’ve also written recently about the most important workplace value—human dignity. And when we covered a story of using electronic sensors to track an employee’s every move, it seems clear that we’re moving away from individual contributions and creativity and towards a model where people are required to perform according to prescribed patterns which are closely monitored.

Employee Productivity and Thinking

© Flickr user pbyrne

A recent podcast interview on IEEE Spectrum discussed these issues with some interesting perspectives. (Read the transcript, or listen)

Here’s a good quote from the conversation with John Sullivan, a consultant and management professor:

Interviewer: What about the Richard Branson credo: “Give people the freedom of where to work, and they will excel.” Let’s call this assertion No. 2: Employees who are empowered to choose where and when to work will work more happily and better. True or false?

Sullivan: Well, those are what we call words. So words are interesting, and they make good poetry, but you need data. So he has no data. He’s not a data-driven guy. Google has data. So they have a whole function called the People Analytics group that does nothing but analyze how to get the most out of workers, how to increase innovation. So whenever anyone has an opinion, I mean it’s great to have an opinion, but if you’re an engineer, you understand that at Google or Facebook, decisions are made based on data.

Data is wonderful, but it takes wisdom to decide what to measure and to interpret data correctly. Google is the company that famously measured responses to 41 shades of blue. Endless testing is not design. If your innovation strategy is evolution, you just get what survives, not what meets the needs of real people.

Jeb Banner, writing a leading Indianapolis web design firm (and a fellow Broad Ripple, Indianapolis consulting business), comments on the proliferation of big data:

[We’ll see] a shift from “gut” to numbers. Although there should always be room for gut and instinct in business, data will allow us to simulate and test on a level that was unimaginable until just recently.

Banner is right on both counts: data gives us more power, but there should always be room for individual creativity based on instinct.

So what is the answer?

We do want to measure results. When people create something of value that is true employee productivity.

We do want to encourage innovation. That means team members should have the freedom to try things, conduct experiments, make mistakes and work on new ideas without a clear understanding of where they are going.

We do not want to focus on activity. Looking busy, or even being busy, is not the sign of a real progress. Programs that try to measure and control everything an employee does distract us from understanding what makes each employee unique.

The fundamental value is dignity. Set expectations and respect individuals. That’s what matters most.

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Robby Slaughter
Robby Slaughter is a workflow and productivity expert. He is a nationally known speaker on topics related to personal productivity, corporate efficiency and employee engagement. Robby is the founder of AccelaWork, a company which provides speakers and consultants to a wide variety of organizations, including Fortune 500 companies, regional non-profits, small businesses and individual entrepreneurs. Robby has written numerous articles for national magazines and has over one hundred published pieces. He is also the author of several books, including Failure: The Secret to Success. He has also been interviewed by international news outlets including the Wall Street Journal. Robby’s newest book is The Battle For Your Email Inbox.
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