The tech is there so why aren’t we doing better?

New technology has been billed as a means to make us more efficient in the work place, but we are actually becoming less productive. So what’s missing from the equation?

Jamie Davies

October 6, 2017

5 Min Read
The tech is there so why aren’t we doing better?

New technology has been billed as a means to make us more efficient in the work place, but we are actually becoming less productive. So what’s missing from the equation?

The point was made by Joshua Meltzer from the Brookings Institute at the Nordic Digital Business Summit in Helsinki. The mobile world of cloud, connectivity and IoT is supposed to make us better, more efficient and more profitable, but it simply isn’t. And this isn’t just one analyst picking out a trend, the data is there to support such claims.

Analysis from The Conference Board shows a steady decline in how productive we actually are. According to the research, productivity actually stabilized in 2016, but this is after a five year period of decline. Even before this period, a decade of consecutively decreasing growth could be seen. This is all after the introduction of the internet, and a swarm of technologies which are supposed to make us better. But in reality, major productivity positives have not been seen for decades.

So what is the explanation? There might be three reasons.

Firstly, let’s have a look at the actual breakthroughs of the last couple of years. We have cloud and better connectivity, which allowed for increased mobility and flexibility. These are technologies which meant you log on from anywhere, and you might as well be at your desk. Your correspondent is currently sat in Helsinki, but it isn’t making much of difference to the working day.

Companies were also able to access services and products quicker and easier. The SaaS concept is one which changed the way a lot of organizations manage their processes. Procuring new software and applications was simplified, and getting updates to the latest bit of kit was a doddle.

There are countless other areas which we could focus on in terms of recent breakthroughs, but we are going to focus on cloud and connectivity. And perhaps they aren’t such a big deal after all.

Yes the cloud changed the way we did business, but we still had the internet before that. It was a step-change, an upgrade if you will. Connectivity also improved to allow for mobility, but people could still work outside of the office beforehand, they just did it offline. This can be said for a lot of the breakthroughs which we’ve seen over the last couple of years, they are nice, but not revolutionary.

Now compare these ‘breakthroughs’ to those which we witnessed in the 20th century. Indoor plumbing, ubiqtuous electricity, mass market penetration of cars, normalization of air travel, computers, mobile phones, email. These were all breakthroughs which fundamentally changed the workplace and society.

When you consider the impact anyone of these 20th century breakthroughs had on our day-to-day lives, it’s no wonder there were sweeping productivity gains. And when you compare them to the somewhat superficial breakthroughs in the 21st century, you can start to see why the trend is not repeating itself.

Now onto the second point, there are too many ideas at the moment.

This might sound like a bit of a strange one, but perhaps these are all just little incremental gains. They have all been billed as the next big thing, but maybe we need them to merge together and create one massive breakthrough. Ubiqtuous connectivity combines with the compute and storage power of the cloud, then we are aided by the automation of artificial intelligence, while getting our emails done in the comfort of a self-driving car.

Individually they are all nice bits of technology which make our lives a bit easier, but bring them all together and you have a new working paradigm. The shift from post to fax and then onto email took time to bed in, the step-change was one which really took decades to significantly impact our lives in a fundamental way, perhaps it is the same with the connected economy.

The third point is down to us. Maybe we’re just not using the technology correctly. This one would not surprise many people, but it is a point which might not be realized until it is said aloud.

Think about it this way. When was the last time your IT team implemented a new bit of software and it didn’t work properly. Or the team wasn’t taught how to use it? Or they simply just didn’t want to because most people fear the new. Kind of makes sense.

The greater workforce isn’t entirely to blame. When a central IT team implements a new idea to make someone’s job a bit easier, it will sometimes (or most of the time) be at the detriment of someone else’s frustration.

Our parent company has expenses software which probably makes it easier for the finance team to do their job, but it is a nightmare for those processing the expenses to use. This is one example of a company trying to improve processes through the implementation of technology, but not putting enough (or putting little) thought into the user experience. The blame shouldn’t be entirely directed at the IT team though. Users take time to adjust to new tech.

The answer probably lies as a combination of all three. Maybe we’re at the beginning of the next innovation cycle, and these ideas just take a bit of time to catch on. As with every new technology, initial uptake is slow and cumbersome, but then once the tweaks are made an effective solution is found. We’re constantly tweaking things at the moment, so maybe a bit of patience and long-term ambition is needed.

That might be the answer, or maybe we’re just lazier than previous generations. Who knows.

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