How Business Benefits From the 21st Century Productivity Revolution

By Brent Frei and Mark Mader

Executive Summary

Productivity growth – doing more work faster – is the lifeblood of a nation’s economy. And for nearly a century, the United States has benefited from its employees’ ever increasing and ever efficient labor output.

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Indeed, U.S. productivity growth steadily expanded by about 2 percent a year between 1920 and 1995, enough to double our standard of living every 35 years. Then the Internet arrived, and annual productivity growth shot up to nearly 3 percent between 2000 and 2004.

Productivity growth has slowed since 2004, and nobody is quite sure why. One of the challenges is how to increase productivity in non-automated jobs where knowledge workers have to collaborate and use their judgment and expertise.

Unfortunately, productivity-enhancing technology – which has helped streamline supply chains, automate financial services and make the manufacturing sector more flexible – may not be helping here.

The average company in America now spends between $5,000 and $10,000 per knowledge worker on hardware and software designed to boost productivity. But this technology actually seems to be making us less productive.

Consider the following:

  • Interruptions from email, cell phones, instant messaging, text messaging and blogs now eat up nearly 30 percent of each day.
  • Add in the endless meetings, and 17 of the 45 hours we spend working each week are currently unproductive, according to Microsoft.
  • 54 percent of those surveyed in a 2006 Intel survey indicated that email has a negative impact on stress levels.
  • And nearly half the interactions in the office, says McKinsey, are not central to corporate decision-making.

The key, then, is how to counter the discontinuity and distraction in the workplace – the surge of unproductive connectivity – so that constructive and efficient collaboration can take hold. In short, the big question is: How do we get cadres of knowledge workers to productively interact?

Since brainstorming accounts for 5 percent of the work process and getting things done represents the remaining 95 percent, The Power of Done makes the case that companies should deploy next-generation productivity technology that tracks specific work performance – tasks, assignments, responsibilities, milestones, goals and deadlines – in real-time. If this information is transparent and accessible 24 X 7 to all team members or project participants, then accountability will be clearly established. And, in the end, it’s accountability that drives results and profits in a collaborative organization.

Technology that helps executives, entrepreneurs and managers understand which employees are doing what – and how well they’re doing it – offers a number of core top- and bottom-line benefits:

  • It Helps Root Out the Culture of Lackluster Assertiveness – In too many companies today, Email Jockeys make noise, look busy and appear to be engaged because they steadily bombard the organization with online messages. This is hardly a substitute for constructive collaboration, and technology that tracks roles, responsibilities and results will quickly unmask these productivity pretenders.
  • It Helps Eliminate the False Sense of Security That Arises From Being on the Same Page – People often emerge from a meeting in which consensus was forged thinking that a project will be magically completed. But agreeing on objectives and actually executing the plan and achieving results are three separate things. Technology that monitors assigned – and completed – tasks in real time ensures that thoughtful consensus leads to hard-core performance.
  • It Helps Unleash the “A” Players in an Organization – Daily digital visibility that defines and separates performers from non-performers means that a company’s achievers can be identified, nurtured and motivated to drive even greater results; at the same time, the “B” players can be flushed out or provided with additional career development so they don’t get in the way of their more productive counterparts.
  • It Helps Bring Virtual Multicultural Teams Together – The global economy requires people from almost every continent to collaborate on projects – whether it’s a worldwide merger between companies in Manila and Miami or an industrial design effort involving suppliers in Lyons and Los Angeles. Real-time technology that consolidates tasks, defines ownership and establishes deadlines means that time zones and cultural differences don’t get in the way of collaborative results.
  • It Helps Offset the Undertow of an Uncertain Economy – Companies that track their work – and workers – day in and day out are well- managed organizations. And this 24 X 7 monitoring prepares them for any economic eventuality, including recession. If a downturn hits, for example, and job cuts have to be made, managers know who’s really been pulling their weight – and who hasn’t. These insights also help make sure that valuable “A” players aren’t left holding the fort on their own after workforce reductions have been made.

Looking beyond today, The Power of Done helps explain the next stage of the 21st century’s technology-enabled productivity revolution.

In addition to discussing real-time tracking of work inside a single organization, the book describes a more efficient and productive future in which each company’s network of suppliers and service providers also monitors its tasks, assignments, ownership and deadlines.

Finally, The Power of Done explains why the much-publicized notion of individual productivity has no real place in the dynamic and collaborative enterprise work environment of the 21st century. In fact, the book’s authors believe there should be an Individual Productivity Tax (IPT) on those who slow an organization down with inefficiencies. The ultimate metric, on the other hand, should be Net Team Productivity (NTP), which would measure the collective effectiveness of multiple people performing multiple interactions in the workplace.

In the end, next-generation productivity-enhancing technology must scale on the Internet so that any company anywhere in the world can log on to a transparent, real-time Global Work Exchange that will show millions of tasks-in-progress and where they and their owners stand at any particular moment.

Digital breakthroughs like this will be necessary to keep the world’s high-margin knowledge-job sector vibrant and global productivity growth strong. It’s unfortunate, but without serious and sweeping technological innovation, a viral epidemic of inefficiency will course through companies everywhere and the overall standard of living will decline for millions of people.