New definition of productivity?

Okay, I was sitting in my office one day multitasking. You know, that word that only really entered into common vernacular in the last oh decade or so. I had multiple programs running on my computer…email, web browser, Bible software, Word Processor, to-do task list and a few books open on my desk. In between making phone calls I was reading my email and separating the “wheat from the chaff” so to speak. Oh, and I was drinking a coffee too.

On the way home that day I was just drifting in thought thinking about all the things that technology has enabled me to do (probably not a good idea while behind the wheel by the way) and then started internally debating whether this technology has made me any more productive.

“Productive” is such a relative term isn’t it? It’s definition can’t really be pinned down to any one set of criteria since for different people in different circumstances the qualification of what constitutes productivity could have such a wide variety of standards and has too much dependence on the perspective of the person evaluating. For example: A greenhouse operator and environment aficionado might see a day planting trees as productive whereas a logger would see a day cutting down trees as productive. Who is the productive one? It depends on your perspective.

I know that example is pretty lame…but hey that’s the best I could come up with – I don’t have much time here to write…which brings me to another observation about evaluating productivity. Often productiveness is a measure of how much gets done in the shortest amount of time. I guess that could be a loose phrase that could form the basic skeleton of a more custom fitting definition of what being productive is all about. Of course, saying “hey I planted 50 trees in 8 hours” might be considered productive under that definition but the quality of your productivity means squat if 45 of those trees die because all you did was shoved them in the ground.

So, why this discussion on the definition of productivity? I guess it’s a round about way of getting back to the subject of this post. Does today’s technology change the definition of productivity? This question probably surfaced in my thoughts because of my recent experience in Zimbabwe. There’s no doubt in my mind that the Zimbabwe people are hard-working people when given the opportunity to do something productive. Yet the infrastructure has become so degraded that the contrast between what they consider productive and what the western world considers as productive is sharp.

Let’s put your mind through a little exercise shall we? Think back 10-20 years ago – is there anything you can think of that is done a bit differently now than then that you would say contributes to more productivity? Here’s my little list to help you get started:

  • Years ago hardly anybody I knew used email -communicating by phone was still pretty much the only way to get in touch with people. Now I can send off quick messages and most people I know use email (I’m still in the backwoods where my shortlist of text messaging contacts runs in the single digits).
  • Years ago I had to be careful of what how many programs I had running at once. Too many and the “blue screen of death was a friendly reminder”. Now, most basic systems can handle the load we throw at them (and yes, I’m speaking very generally and generously here – keep in mind this is a comparison exercise)
  • Years ago printing anything was a lot slower than printing something now. And forget about in-house printing – most big jobs would be outsourced (especially if it involved color). Now, I don’t blanch at the prospect of printing a 30 page document – oh and it doesn’t slow down the computer while I’m printing either.
  • Years ago I’d pay a pretty penny for the latest resource books and/or software that would help me get done what I needed to get done. Now, there are so many resources online and the advent of online web apps has super-sized the accessibility of my projects.
  • Years ago research was an incredibly time-consuming process. Now, the research time-clock runs much swifter.

That’s just my shortlist – I’m sure it will vary widely among any of you who do this exercise but the point I’m trying to make is this: I think that with the advance of technology and the tools it affords today’s modern western workforce – the definition of productivity is being changed.

Remember the skeletal definition I introduced this article with – that productivity is a measure of how much can get done in the least amount of time? Well in this case someone who may have been productive 10 years ago who can’t get a handle on the technology of today might (and I deliberately used might) not be considered productive today. The relative definition of “productive” has changed because of the different measuring criteria.

Technology today has afforded the possibility for more to get done in a shorter period of time. What does this mean? One possible implication is that a young person entering the workforce today may be expected to do more in one week than what may have taken someone two weeks to do 10 years ago if they are to be considered productive. This means that the expectations from consumers towards those providing services will be escalated as well (what do you do when McDonald’s makes you go and wait in the drive-thru parking lot when your order isn’t ready? Yeah that’s right, you say to yourself, “Boy they need to train these people better” – after all your getting your order in 5 minutes now instead of 2 right?).

Of course, just because technology makes it possible for more to get done in a shorter period of time doesn’t necessarily mean that more does get done and that it gets done well. But that is a topic for another post 😉

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