Where's the productivity?

Productivity matters

I remember the swooshing, grating sound as the sharpening stone slid down the blade of the scythe, removing any dirt, grime or rust. Back and forth, one side then the other, my father’s hand wielded the stone until the blade shone. It was time to cut the hay and we were poor farmers. We couldn’t afford the farm machinery. But soon even we were forced to give up on the scythe and hire a neighbor to cut our few fields of hay. That’s because cutting a field of hay with a scythe took forever. 

It’s estimated that before the introduction of farm machinery “an able-bodied laborer could reap about one quarter acre of wheat in a day using a sickle,” according to Wikipedia. With farm machinery, “two men and two horses could cut, rake and bind 20 acres of wheat per day.” 10.10.20, I still remember the name of the fertilizer that brought nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium to our soil. In the years before we used 10.10.20 we’d get about five cocks of hay from a field. After applying it, we were getting more than 20. 

It was easy to see productivity gains when a farm started using machinery and fertilizers. They were dramatic, and they were the difference between having a life of subsistence and being able to afford a few small luxuries, a better education, and a way out of the grind of existence.

The typewriter was something. I had advanced from scrawly writing. I would stay up many a late night two-fingering its keys, trying to master the art of Tipp-ex, cursing when I had not waited long enough for it to dry and the hammered key splodged the page. How I longed for a word processor. Finally, I got enough money together and waited for the January sales. For the last three or four days of December, I walked quite the distance to peer in through the shop window at the machine of my desires. To bring it home. To open the box, set it up and start typing. What a thrill! And then to graduate to a computer and to have Microsoft Word. And so on and so on. The pen was my scythe. The computer was my machinery. Or was it? 

Too many emails

Experts have been claiming that email “died” during the early 2000s because of the advent of all sorts of new communications channels such as texting, Facebook, Slack, etc. For something that is dead, it sure as hell shows lots of signs of life. According to Statista, there will be over 300 billion emails sent and received every single day in 2020. That’s over 30 billion more a day than were sent in 2017. 

Let’s say a knowledge worker can send two letters a day when using pen and paper. With a computer they can send 40. Does that make them more productive? Using fertilizer and cutting the field using machinery literally changed my life. Sending 40 emails versus two emails should make us more productive. But what if 20 of those emails are unnecessary? That’s a waste of time, isn’t it? Yes, and not just for the writer, but also for the people who receive them and have got to respond. Email. Even though I can’t live without it, it can be a problem. 

A 2019 study found that in the UK there are 64 million unnecessary emails sent every day. It estimated that if everyone sent one less “thank you” email, there would be 16 UK tonnes less carbon emitted in a year. One less email every day in the UK alone would mean saving 2,750 trees from having to deal with unnecessary pollution.

According to Mike Berners-Lee’s 2010 book How Bad are Bananas?, the average email creates 4 grams of CO2. (Yes, he’s the brother of Tim, inventor of the Web.) An email with an attachment creates as much as 50 grams of CO2. Simply receiving a spam causes 0.3 grams (0.0003 kg) of CO2. 

About half of all emails are spam, according to Statista. That would mean that every year about 55 trillion spam emails are sent, creating about 16 billion kg of CO2. You would have to plant about 1.6 billion trees to offset its pollution. 1.6 billion. Something is surely wrong with a system that allows criminals to destroy the planet while conning the world for free. 

Unfortunately, spam has nothing on legitimate emails when it comes to pollution. You would have to plant 21 billion trees to deal with the pollution caused by sending typical emails, and this is not accounting for the percentage of emails with attachments. A Harvard study of CEOs found that almost a quarter of their time was spent dealing with emails. Some years ago, we did a Top Tasks analysis of management in one of the world’s largest companies. When we asked them what was the most time-consuming part of their jobs, email was way out in front. When we asked them what activity added the most value, email was way down the list.

Back in 2012, those tech visionaries at McKinsey saw the problem and knew the solution to email. It’s always the same solution: more technology. New technology. New communications software had the potential to increase employee productivity by a whopping 25%! “The average interaction worker spends an estimated 28% of the workweek managing email and nearly 20% looking for internal information or tracking down colleagues who can help with specific tasks,” McKinsey wrote. 

Good job Slack and Teams and G Suite were just down the yellow brick techie road promising innovation and life-changing, productivity-enhancing sign-on-the-bottom-line enhancements. Fast forward to 2019. “On average, employees at large companies are each sending more than 200 Slack messages per week,” Rani Molla wrote for Recode in 2019. He was referencing data from Time Is Ltd., a productivity analytics company. Power users sending out more than 1,000 messages per day were not an exception, according to the analysis.

We’re still children when it comes to digital. We want new toys all the time. “We’re just moving email to another place and it’s less searchable,” Sarah Peck, founder of Startup Pregnant, stated about Slack et al. Slack is instant. Slack is always on. Great. Email is stressful. Slack is super-stressful. 

Digital never gets tired. Digital is relentless. Digital is much more a producer than an organizer. The tool shapes us so we must become always on, always producing. We slowly morph into the most-used features of our software. 

We’re not software. We don’t work well in always-on mode. We get tired. We get distracted. We need periods of quiet so as to truly concentrate and be productive. Think before you send that message. Consider that you are interrupting the flow of your colleagues. Slow down. Turn off. Wait. Before creating an email or a Slack message, think about the environments: the work environment and the planetary environment. Don’t add to the pollution. Instead of trying to go fast, fast. Get in control. Your brain is still quite useful. Use it more. Stop outsourcing your thinking to Google, Slack, email, etc.

Technology productivity paradox

For most of civilization humans lived pretty miserable lives. Any sort of productivity improvement was eaten up by a growing population. About 150 years ago, certain countries began to progress rapidly. Immediately after the Second World War, productivity really took off. “Today the average person on the planet is as rich as the average person in the richest country in 1950,” Max Roser wrote for Our World In Data in 2020. By any measure, that is extraordinary progress. However, as digital rose in prominence, that progress began to slow and then stall. 

During the 1970s and 1980s, when computing power had increased 100-fold in the United States, productivity growth dropped from an average of 3% per year in the Sixties to 1%. From the mid-Nineties, it picked up again, getting close to levels seen in the Sixties. However, after the great recession of 2007–08, it fell off a cliff again. “Real median disposable income in the United States was lower in 2012 than it was in 2000,” Jason Furman, Chairman of US Council of Economic Advisers, stated in 2015.

In 2019, The Conference Board, a global business research organization, released a report stating that in the 123 countries it monitored, productivity had remained weak in 2018 and would continue to be slow in 2019. “The long-awaited productivity effects from digital transformation are still too small to see reflected in a lasting improvement at the macroeconomic level,” said Bart van Ark, Global Chief Economist of The Conference Board. It’s not just productivity that has declined. “The average US firm’s return on assets has progressively dropped 75% since 1965,” the World Economic Forum reported in 2020. 

Why has digital innovation not resulted in a surge in productivity? Why, with the exception of the mid-Nineties, did the opposite occur? According to The Shift Project, for every $3–5 spent on digital, we get $2 back in productivity. In the UK, they’ve had their worst decade for productivity since the early 1800s, with an anemic 0.3% productivity growth. The 0.3% figure “is probably the most important UK statistic of the last decade,” Hetan Shah, executive director of the Royal Statistical Society, stated. 

Crap destroys productivity

Reusing waste can increase productivity. Useless waste is unproductive. If you’re looking for an underlying reason why digital has not delivered on its productivity promise, it’s because digital has delivered too much useless waste. If we want to improve productivity, we have to cut the crap. 

90% of digital is waste, whether it’s wasted content, wasted design, wasted code, or e-waste piling up in some toxic dump. The adage “garbage in, garbage out” is still the truest of true sayings. We create too much crap data and we create too much crap software. Mixing crap data and crap software gets you more crap. You can personalize it, you can AI it, you’ll still get crap. You can’t polish a turd. 

If an organization has an ineffective culture for the creation and management of data, then all technology will do is accelerate bad habits. To someone who deals in crap, giving them content management software is like taking away their shovel and giving them an e-shovel. They’re going to shovel crap faster.

If an organization has an ineffective culture of communication, adding a new communications technology to the mix adds a new crap-making machine. If an organization has a culture of being internally competitive (as very many traditional organizations are), giving them collaboration software isn’t going to do much. 

You can’t have digital transformation if you don’t have organizational transformation. Let’s face it, the vast majority of organizations are appallingly bad at organizing data, information, and content in a way that is usable and useful. They are also not great at organizing effective teams and true collaborative environments. 

In my work on intranets, the biggest improvements we saw were not down to buying new technology. They were a result of changing organizational behavior. We made people responsible for the content they published. We greatly reduced the number of publishers, gave them better training, and got them collaborating with each other. We incentivized sharing, got people to write content using words that their colleagues would use when searching. We trained people about the critical importance of metadata and how to write it better. 

“Periods of outsized productivity growth do not necessarily align with periods normally associated with technological innovation,” Jason Furman wrote. How we as humans organize ourselves has tremendous productivity potential. Even if the technology is genuinely new and innovative, we must also have a new organizational structure and way of working and thinking to get the best out of it. 

You cannot create a collaborative culture if employees are rewarded only for individual effort. You cannot get departments working together if they are all competing for budgets and prestige with each other. You cannot get employees to want their content to get found on the intranet if it is their belief that getting found means getting more work, getting more questions from employees outside their department, knowing that answering these questions will often be frowned on by their manager because it’s not furthering the department’s objectives.

The biggest productivity improvement of all I have been associated with was when we convinced the organization to cut the crap. When we did a massive cull of 80% of the crap data that was on the intranet, a whole world of productivity blossomed. 

We don’t need more digital innovation. No, please stop, you’re killing me with your latest app. Enough. What we desperately need is organizational innovation, new ways of working, new ways of collaborating, new ways of thinking about society and economy. The old model was hierarchical. The new model is collaborative, team-based and cross-functional.

Digital’s big lie

I have watched digital technology being sold into hundreds of organizations over 25 years. There is one constant, recurrent lie that both the buyer and seller tell each other. It is that digital is self-organizing. You pay the hefty price tag, plug it in and then watch all those efficiencies blossom. Oh, forgot, you have to fire lots of people as well. The business case for so much technology and software is that you can get rid of lots and lots of people. 

Among the people who are to be fired are those who help organize and manage the flow of information throughout an organization. They may be secretaries, editors, office managers, librarians, information architects. Fire them all and then the knowledge workers who are left can book their own meeting rooms, claim their own expenses, do their own research, moderate their own conversations and group collaborations.

It is magical thinking based on three tremendously false assumptions:

  1. That software organizes data on its own. Even the vaunted artificial intelligence (AI) can’t do that because if the base data that AI learns from is crap, then everything after it is crap.
  2. That the software will be so easy to use that it will require hardly any training or effort. Designing easy-to-use software is still a rare skill. Nine out of ten software environments that I have come across exhibited shockingly bad usability.
  3. That all knowledge workers are natural communicators and collaborators. That they don’t require ongoing guidance and support in order to develop quality data and collaborative skills. Nurturing communication and collaboration skills have never been more essential.

Key actions

Cut that crap. Delete at least 80%. Right now, crap, useless data is destroying organizational efficiency. We must cut the crap, and that begins by adopting new ways of collaborative working.

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