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The Productivity Paradox and Moore’s Law

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There are two ideas in business that date back decades, yet seem to continue to be true today. One asks why nothing seems to be getting better. The other insists that everything is getting better. Which is right?

The place to begin is with a reminder about each idea. First up, the productivity paradox.

Technology is Amazing, So Why Aren’t We More Productive?

If you’ve survived a flaky computer or a hard drive crash, you may feel some sympathy with idea that technology may not always make us more efficient. But researchers who study productivity have noted that it’s not just temporary setbacks that throw us off. Rather, there’s a widespread phenomenon at work.

A faculty page hosted at Stanford University explains the idea well:

The productivity paradox is the peculiar observation made in business process analysis that, as more investment is made in information technology, worker productivity may go down instead of up. This observation has been firmly supported with empirical evidence from the 1970s to the early 1990s. This is highly counter intuitive. Before investment in IT became widespread, the expected return on investment in terms of productivity was 3-4%. This average rate developed from the mechanization/automation of the farm and factory sectors. With IT though, the normal return on investment was only 1% from the 1970s to the early 1990s.

In short: technology is supposed to help us get a lot more done, but in reality it doesn’t.

Circuit Board and Microchip

© Flickr user htomari

Technology is Getting Faster At An Amazingly Fast Rate

This is a fact you certainly already know. The tablet/laptop/cellphone of today is clearly smaller and more powerful than the device of yesteryear. But the reason for this is that the underlying technology—the integrated circuit—is increasing in density exponentially.

Named for Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, this is often expressed as “Moore’s Law.” Computing power doubles about every 18 months. It’s a fact that keeps getting proven over again, ever since it was first proposed back in the 1960s.

How Can Both Be True?

That’s the question raised by Bret Swanson at the American Enterprise Institute. He quotes few different people and offers some different explanations, most of which are economic.

My theory is completely different. I think the reason that technology hasn’t made us dramatically more productive is that it hasn’t been accompanied by a revolution in individual respect.

Here’s some examples of things that advanced technology allows us to do now:

  • Interrupt people anywhere, at any time, through texts, calls, instant messages
  • Multitask on complex work, such as writing, reading, listening, and designing
  • Be more closely monitored, via GPS, call monitoring, or screen recording
  • Have your time controlled, through automated time clock or measurements systems.

All technology gives us power. The question is how we use that power. What we’ve decided to do with technology is not to give people more freedom and opportunity, but all too often to limit their freedom and opportunity. We don’t trust people.

Solving The Productivity Paradox

Here’s how we regain the incredible advances promised by modern technology: step away and let people excel. This is hard in the modern business, where we think everything needs to be always-on, and everyone needs to respond immediately.

Here’s some tips for making this happen:

  • Don’t interrupt people while they are working – That means don’t send text messages in most circumstances, don’t call. Send an email, or save it for the meeting.
  • Focus on one task at a time. – Turn off the screen, or clear your desk. Disable popup notifications.
  • Don’t control when and where people work – Work is what you do, not a place you go.

If you want technology to help people become more productive, work on helping the people to feel more respected. That’s the secret to making a difference.

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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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