The word ‘productivity’ comes up a lot when IT vendors and service providers talk about what they are trying to do for their customers. Whether it’s mobile communications, search technology, the latest version of desktop office tools, or whatever, it is common to hear claims of productivity boosts.
When used in a lot of trendier contexts, the notion of productivity is usually associated with getting more out your workforce, and it often goes together with the whole ‘empowerment’ theme. Looked at from an IT perspective, the focus here is ‘user productivity’, and given the amount of time we all waste wrestling with, let’s just say, ‘suboptimal solutions’, any help in this area is gratefully received.
The problem with user productivity, however, is that it is notoriously hard to assess or measure. A lot of it boils down to trying to figure out how much unproductive time can be ‘reclaimed’ through the use of the latest ideas and offerings, which is OK, but can be a challenge to work into a business case for investment.
Against this background, I have had some interesting conversations with both IBM and Microsoft recently which ended up with us taking a broader view of productivity when trying to put some of their latest marketing activities into perspective. With IBM, I was trying to get my brain around what ‘Smart Work’ (part of the ‘Smarter Planet’ initiative) actually boiled down to in terms of tangible ideas or propositions that could be acted upon. With Microsoft, the challenge was making sense of what’s behind the message: “Because it’s everybody’s business”, which seemed to be getting at productivity in one way or another.
As an aside, I have to say that vendors don’t make it easy for people to figure out what the hell they are going on about when they wrap everything up in what can appear to be abstract and arbitrary concepts. I’m sure a lot this stuff originally made sense in those ‘messaging workshops’ while the flip chart pages with inspiring phrases were being stuck around the walls, but by the time it has all been pulled together into slick looking PowerPoint decks and creative advertising campaigns, the meaning is often as clear as mud to the rest of us.
Anyway, back to the plot. While trying to unpick some of the marketing concepts, it occurred to me that a lot of what the abovementioned vendors and others seem to be driving at is the value of thinking a bit more holistically about things like productivity. Now it could be argued that a lot of us running businesses have always thought in that way, and it’s only when analysts and vendors get stuck in product/technology category ruts that we end up with fragmented and disjointed thinking. However, there is some value in introducing a bit of structure and precision here so we can achieve some clarity on how traditional categories and domains map onto the holistic view.
When Jon Collins and I went through this, we ended up with the following points and principles:
1. Productivity is a function of efficiency and effectiveness. A key notion here is that boosting output is as much about focusing on the right activities as it is about generally reducing overheads and costs.
2. The thing that really matters at the end of the day is business productivity, which is not just about the user level, but how well everything works at the next level up – organisation structures, processes, policies, practices, etc. This is basically about having the right people doing the right things at the right time in the right way.
3. An important principle when looking to improve productivity is visibility and understanding. This might sound obvious, but the point is that it’s not just about whoever is responsible for managing some aspect of business performance being able to see what’s going on, it’s also about making sure users understand the context of their activities and how their individual performance impacts in the greater scheme of things.
On this last point, we are mostly talking about business professionals rather than task workers, though some argue that there are benefits in making the latter more aware of how their jobs relate to the bigger picture.
Circling back to technology, it is clear that if you take this more holistic business productivity view, you need to coordinate your activities across a number of disciplines. The role of desktop and mobile computing doesn’t need much explaining, nor does the potential contribution of collaboration and unified communication solutions. But then we have things like Business Process Management (BPM) and workflow to deal with the over-arching process view, and Business Intelligence (BI), both at a macro and personal level, which is often the key to working out what the right things are to do in the first place to drive that effectiveness dimension.
Of course you could take the cynical view that this all nets out to the question of what you need in place to run an efficient and effective business, which in itself is not particularly original. As IT vendors think more in this manner, however, no matter how they dress it up and obscure it with marketing speak, there is a greater chance that they will actually make sure what they deliver works together a bit more effectively, which is something to be welcomed and encouraged.