This is one of my favourite quotes of all time. It’s from Homer J. Simpson – one of the greatest dunderheads in the history of television. What I like about it is the combination of its paradoxical nature and its kernel of hidden truth.
I read this article on the BBC website last week and it reminded me of Homer.
The UK is facing a “productivity puzzle” – the economy is growing slowly because productivity (i.e. the amount an average worker produces) isn’t growing very quickly. An economy can only grow if either more people are producing “stuff”, or if people produce more “stuff” per head. Our economic growth is largely down to increasing numbers of people working (which is of course a good thing). But it would grow faster if we all became more efficient. Economics really is that simple!
This got me thinking about the day-to-day things that my team and I are doing to become more efficient, and the day-to-day barriers that stop us being as efficient as we could be.
To technology! The cause of… and solution to… all our productivity puzzles.
Technology has revolutionised the office over the last ten years. We’ve introduced new ways of collaborating and communicating with each another and computers now do much of the “grunt work” in a typical office. These should be making us all more efficient. But overall, across the country as a whole, they’re not having the effect we all hoped for. We’re barely more efficient as a country than we were ten years ago.
So why is this?
The first comment on the BBC’s article was instructive: “It’s blinding obvious why productivity gains are so slow… the internet. People spending all their time reading and commenting on articles like this when they should be getting on with their work!”
There’s certainly some truth in that, but I think that’s only part of it. There are other issues too.
Whilst technology is making it easier to communicate over long distances, and with larger audiences (this blog being a great example), we can easily become swamped by the number of channels we have now. I counted up how many ways people can get in touch with me today – I’ve got 10 different communication channels to monitor. When I first started working in an office there were four (in person, by post, by landline or by email). I think this explosion in the number of channels has, in some ways, made communication less efficient and less effective. It creates confusion about how to communicate. I’ve often received emails or instant messages from people sitting at a desk ten metres away – they should just talk to me!
Also, new technology requires training. When I was at school, I was a member of the computer club. I was expert at getting the latest 386 PC to do whatever I wanted. Others gaped in amazement at my skills and I felt like the King of Tech. But now I’m a self-confessed luddite. Technology has moved on so much that I can sometimes barely get the stuff to work at all. I know there’s lots of ways my computer can help me more, but I don’t know what they all are!
Reliability and compatibility are also huge issues. We have so much specialised software that has helped us in immeasurable ways, but it doesn’t all “talk” to each other. And I’m sure computers crash more than they used to.
So yes, technology is the cause, or at least part of the cause, of the UK’s productivity puzzle. But, as Homer said, it’s also the solution.
If we can learn not to be distracted by it, and learn to work with it to harness its power, then better technology can only be positive. In the words of Garry Kasparov, one of the cleverest men I’ve never met, “It’s up to us humans to do what only humans can do and that’s dream and dream big so we can get the most out of these amazing new tools.”