In the wrong hands, IT tools can reduce productivity!

Posted on March 11, 2010 · Posted in Analysis and Opinion

The argument about Information Technology’s benefit to the enterprise seems silly: of course having computers, both in isolation and on a network, has added huge value to industry and business; indeed, they are as pivotal a game changer as the steam engine, the printing press, or (dare I say it?) the wheel. And yet, the discussion is legitimate if you frame it correctly: yes, computers are good in general, but is any specific, given additional IT tool of benefit?

In many cases this depends on who the organization assigns it to. You’ve probably noticed this when visiting a doctor at a clinic: I’ve seen many an MD cursing under their breath while struggling to enter my examination data and conclusions into a new computerized system. Instead of scribbling a few illegible lines on paper and chucking it into a manila file, to be processed later by an assistant, they had to use an unfamiliar and possibly ill-designed piece of technology, and it took them much longer. And because of this they had less time to apply their real value added, their precious ability to cure the sick.

A more formal view on this is described by IORG member Dr. Lesa Becker, whose PhD dissertation examined the use of computers in a health care setting: she found that usually a new IT system introduced into the workplace resulted in increased overload and reduced manager productivity. Why? Because as new software products were implemented, the role definition of managers would change – clerical tasks that had been performed by low-level clerks and administrative assistants would be shifted to managers, taking time away from higher-level tasks like managing processes, mentoring subordinates, etc. I’ve seen this happen over the years in Hi-Tech as well: many mid-level managers today handle – with the help of software – numerous bureaucratic tasks, like compiling expense reports and setting up meetings, that 20 years ago would have been in the hands of the then-ubiquitous secretaries and clerks.

I think this is a real problem, which follows the usual pattern with new technology: it gets deployed with little attention to the wider implications. Thus, if a tool enables the manager or engineer to do the admin’s work, the temptation to remove the admin and become “lean” and “efficient” is great. But the fact is, an admin is paid much less than a highly skilled engineer or manager (or surgeon); and the latter only has so many hours in a day, which may be better used for doing higher level tasks. This is not to say that we can’t streamline some of the work by having it done by the manager; the question is which part, and to what extent. As is often the case, it’s pretty much about identifying the correct balance.

I propose that if we want to reap the full benefit of IT tools, we should take a holistic view of their impact. Only after we understand the alternatives should we decide who should use them, and how. If we keep the right tools in the right hands, and maintain the right expectations, we can derive real productivity increases without sacrificing our knowledge workers’ effectiveness in their main role.

What do you think? Is it any different where you work?