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Productivity maybe . . . but for what purpose?

Productivity maybe . . . but for what purpose?

Why choices about what to do with the time and effort you save are more critical

    One reasonable definition of increased personal productivity is creating the ability to do more with less effort and in a shorter time. Nothing wrong with that — at least until you ask what you will do with the time and effort you have saved.

    Not so many years ago, many people — including governments and businesses — thought that a rapid increase in individual and corporate productivity would lead to an explosion of leisure time; that we would all be working only two or three days each week, with the rest earmarked for leisure. There were concerns about how people would spend all this free time, and whether it would produce fresh possibilities for businesses, or some kind of social unrest.

    We know now, of course, that it didn’t happen. Far from working less, people are working even longer hours, despite all the increases in productivity over the past few decades.

    Why didn’t it happen?

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    I think the answer lies in the question that I started with: what do you do with the time and effort saved by increasing your productivity? Do you spend it; and, if you do, what do you buy?

    That question remains critical for all of us.

    The rise of consumer-driven economies . . .

    One way of spending the time and effort saved by greater productivity, of course, is to produce still more. That’s become the orthodox approach. As productivity rises, you don’t allow employees to work less, you use the effort freed by improving processes and systems to add to production. By this definition, for an organization to be more productive means to increase output indefinitely; preferably reducing unit costs at the same time. In personal terms, it means doing more and more and increasing your earnings as a result.

    Where is all this extra production to go? People must buy it to keep the whole cycle in place. That’s what has produced a society in which people work longer and harder in order to buy more; and an economy that depends on this process continuing — even increasing. If growth is driven by consumption, consumption must increase — not just by increasing overall wealth, but by encouraging all of us to buy more and more, regardless of need.

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    Of course, one way to speed up the process is to make credit as easy as possible, so that mere income no longer limits what people can buy. We’re seeing the result of that answer today, and it isn’t very comfortable.

    . . . increases the need for consumption-driven individuals

    At an individual level, the same process drives those who work long hours to increase their income; then spend it on consumer goods and expensive, designer labels. In many cases, the possession of the latest, flashiest, and most expensive product becomes an end in itself: a display of personal power and success, much like a peacock spreading its magnificent tail to demonstrate dominance. It has to be this way, since all the time allocated to working and earning leaves no time for spending money on vacations or leisure time or anything that cannot be purchased in an instant.

    Easy credit allowed such people to leverage their spending power, running up huge debts in the process. Some did it for display, others as a means to earn still more by riding on the back of the explosion in house prices. Then still more people copied them, especially by buying real estate, whether as a home or an investment.

    For a while, they were all the darlings of the economy: the driving force behind boom times for corporations and shareholders. Now things have gone wrong, there are fears that, by stopping such manic spending, consumers will drive world economies into a painful recession. If people don’t consume, companies can’t produce, and the entire cycle comes to a halt.

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    It’s all about choice

    Let’s bring this down to the personal level. Suppose you increase your own productivity, either by using one of the many techniques available or just by becoming more focused and better organized. You can now do what you used to do in less time and with less effort.

    What will you do with the “savings?”

    • You can “spend” them — by working just as much, or more, and increasing your monetary earnings. You will then have more cash, but still less time to enjoy it: the typical position of most people today. This answer honors the notion built into the Puritan Work Ethic that idleness causes moral hazards and work is good in itself. It’s what the US economy has become dependent upon.
    • You can spend them on leisure. You can keep your output (and probably your earnings) at the same level and devote the extra time to something else, whether that’s pleasure, volunteer activities, family time, or simply hanging out and enjoying life. Some people will label you as idle and lazy, but you don’t have to accept either description. Your choice will, however, depress activity in any consumer-based economy — and the earnings of a good many corporations as a result.
    • You can save them. Yes, you can “bank” your extra time — even invest it.

    How do you do this? By allocating the time to something that will bring you “interest” in terms of future increases in earnings, productivity, or enjoyment.

    This something is called learning. Time spent on learning will improve your ability to do whatever you choose in the future. It’s the equivalent of a corporation using productivity savings to finance research and development that will itself result in new products and fresh ways to become still more productive.

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    That won’t help the consumer sector of the economy in the short-term, but it will boost long-term creativity and add to activity in the education sector. It will also likely improve the chances of the nation leading the next wave of economic activity, based on products that haven’t yet been invented.

    Think about it carefully

    The choice of how we spend our productivity savings is crucial for the way we will live in the future, both at the personal level and for society as a whole. It’s worth taking some time to think about it quite carefully.

    As with all savings, there will always be people eager to take what you have and use it for their own short-term gain. My strong suggestion is that you hold on and make your own decision. As today’s financial woes have shown, jumping into simple answers and spending productivity gains right away can leave you with an almighty hangover.

    Photo credit: Artful Scribe at Morguefile.com

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    The Productivity Paradox: What Is It And How Can We Move Beyond It?

    The Productivity Paradox: What Is It And How Can We Move Beyond It?

    It’s a depressing adage we’ve all heard time and time again: An increase in technology does not necessarily translate to an increase in productivity.

    Put another way by Robert Solow, a Nobel laureate in economics,

    “You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.”

    In other words, just because our computers are getting faster, that doesn’t mean that that we will have an equivalent leap in productivity. In fact, the opposite may be true!

    New York Times writer Matt Richel wrote in an article for the paper back in 2008 that stated, “Statistical and anecdotal evidence mounts that the same technology tools that have led to improvements in productivity can be counterproductive if overused.”

    There’s a strange paradox when it comes to productivity. Rather than an exponential curve, our productivity will eventually reach a plateau, even with advances in technology.

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    So what does that mean for our personal levels of productivity? And what does this mean for our economy as a whole? Here’s what you should know about the productivity paradox, its causes, and what possible solutions we may have to combat it.

    What is the productivity paradox?

    There is a discrepancy between the investment in IT growth and the national level of productivity and productive output. The term “productivity paradox” became popularized after being used in the title of a 1993 paper by MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson, a Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and the Director of the MIT Center for Digital Business.

    In his paper, Brynjolfsson argued that while there doesn’t seem to be a direct, measurable correlation between improvements in IT and improvements in output, this might be more of a reflection on how productive output is measured and tracked.[1]

    He wrote in his conclusion:

    “Intangibles such as better responsiveness to customers and increased coordination with suppliers do not always increase the amount or even intrinsic quality of output, but they do help make sure it arrives at the right time, at the right place, with the right attributes for each customer.

    Just as managers look beyond “productivity” for some of the benefits of IT, so must researchers be prepared to look beyond conventional productivity measurement techniques.”

    How do we measure productivity anyway?

    And this brings up a good point. How exactly is productivity measured?

    In the case of the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, productivity gain is measured as the percentage change in gross domestic product per hour of labor.

    But other publications such as US Today, argue that this is not the best way to track productivity, and instead use something called Total Factor Productivity (TFP). According to US Today, TFP “examines revenue per employee after subtracting productivity improvements that result from increases in capital assets, under the assumption that an investment in modern plants, equipment and technology automatically improves productivity.”[2]

    In other words, this method weighs productivity changes by how much improvement there is since the last time productivity stats were gathered.

    But if we can’t even agree on the best way to track productivity, then how can we know for certain if we’ve entered the productivity paradox?

    Possible causes of the productivity paradox

    Brynjolfsson argued that there are four probable causes for the paradox:

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    • Mis-measurement – The gains are real but our current measures miss them.
    • Redistribution – There are private gains, but they come at the expense of other firms and individuals, leaving little net gain.
    • Time lags – The gains take a long time to show up.
    • Mismanagement – There are no gains because of the unusual difficulties in managing IT or information itself.

    There seems to be some evidence to support the mis-measurement theory as shown above. Another promising candidate is the time lag, which is supported by the work of Paul David, an economist at Oxford University.

    According to an article in The Economist, his research has shown that productivity growth did not accelerate until 40 years after the introduction of electric power in the early 1880s.[3] This was partly because it took until 1920 for at least half of American industrial machinery to be powered by electricity.”

    Therefore, he argues, we won’t see major leaps in productivity until both the US and major global powers have all reached at least a 50% penetration rate for computer use. The US only hit that mark a decade ago, and many other countries are far behind that level of growth.

    The paradox and the recession

    The productivity paradox has another effect on the recession economy. According to Neil Irwin,[4]

    “Sky-high productivity has meant that business output has barely declined, making it less necessary to hire back laid-off workers…businesses are producing only 3 percent fewer goods and services than they were at the end of 2007, yet Americans are working nearly 10 percent fewer hours because of a mix of layoffs and cutbacks in the workweek.”

    This means that more and more companies are trying to do less with more, and that means squeezing two or three people’s worth of work from a single employee in some cases.

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    According to Irwin, “workers, frightened for their job security, squeezed more productivity out of every hour [in 2010].”

    Looking forward

    A recent article on Slate puts it all into perspective with one succinct observation:

    “Perhaps the Internet is just not as revolutionary as we think it is. Sure, people might derive endless pleasure from it—its tendency to improve people’s quality of life is undeniable. And sure, it might have revolutionized how we find, buy, and sell goods and services. But that still does not necessarily mean it is as transformative of an economy as, say, railroads were.”

    Still, Brynjolfsson argues that mismeasurement of productivity can really skew the results of people studying the paradox, perhaps more than any other factor.

    “Because you and I stopped buying CDs, the music industry has shrunk, according to revenues and GDP. But we’re not listening to less music. There’s more music consumed than before.

    On paper, the way GDP is calculated, the music industry is disappearing, but in reality it’s not disappearing. It is disappearing in revenue. It is not disappearing in terms of what you should care about, which is music.”

    Perhaps the paradox isn’t a death sentence for our productivity after all. Only time (and perhaps improved measuring techniques) will tell.

    Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

    Reference

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