Are ICTs and productivity at odds with each other?

It is a long held belief that use of ICTs increases productivity. This post challenges whether this is indeed true.

In the Caribbean and for several years, a popular buzzword among policy makers has been “productivity”. It is seen as a key performance indicator in many assessments, and considerable effort has been made to promote and incorporate it into people’s working lives.  Access to and use of ICTs are considered critical components to increase our productiveness, and to an appreciable extent, this has been the impetus for several computerisation projects that have occurred in the region.

“If people have access to ________ (a computer … the Internet … email … a mobile phone … a telephone) they will be able to achieve far more with their time than they could otherwise.”

While there might be some truth to that statement, there is also a growing recognition that with ICT, people might not be as productive as had been initially envisaged. There are ever more complaints that business people are slow to respond – to emails, to telephone messages, and even to formal letters. Among ourselves, we might be prepared to admit that rarely do we accomplish all that we had planned to do in the work day, and perhaps more seriously, we seem to have more to do than there is time to get it all done. If ICTs are supposed to help us to have more time on our hands, what has gone wrong?

Manners and business etiquette. Although it might seem fairly obvious, whether or not or the extent to which a person has manners has nothing to do with technology. If someone is loathed to respond to a letter or to take promised follow-up action, it should not be surprising if similar behaviour is experienced via email. Such behaviour might be more a signal of the person’s attitude toward others and his/her work environment than anything that could be blamed on the ICT media at his/her disposal.

Multitasking versus productivity. One of the key ways in which ICTs were supposed to help us to be more productive was to help us multitask. However, recent reports from institutions such as Stanford University and McKinsey suggest that multitasking does not increase productivity – it is actually the opposite.

For many employees, especially those in managerial or supervisory positions, it is often the experience that they spend much of their time in meetings, interacting with their colleagues, dealing with crises and other “top priority” issues, etc. Hence by the end of the day, they really have not had a chance to focus on the tasks they had planned to address. In many environments, this scenario is the norm and not the exception, so employees have difficulty finding time to tackle the considerable backlog of communication and tasks that are awaiting attention.

Immediacy of technology. One of the outstanding benefits of technology is the speed in which it allows actions or commands to be completed. We can call someone, or send him/her a SMS, an email, or even a tweet and within seconds, our message can be delivered. On the flipside, technology has also affected our perception of time: we expect prompt action. Recipients are often required to respond to scores of electronic communications, as well as to live situations that are coming across their desk, all of which are competing for their attention. Under those circumstances, the natural inclination is to address priority situations, which are most likely matters that their colleagues or superiors consider urgent.

Information overload. Coupled with the immediacy of technology, we are frequently overwhelmed with information. This can be in the form of electronic communication, but also includes that which we generate when conducting research online. For the latter, inquiries that we hope would take a few minutes, can take hours as we wade through the deluge of information that available electronically and on the Internet. With regard to the former, we are receiving communication from many avenues, but they must be read and sorted before they can be prioritised and the necessary action taken. All of these activities are time consuming. They can erode considerable portions of the workday, leaving us little time to tackle substantive matters that we are actually paid to address.

These four points should prompt us to question how productive we are with ICTs. In the workplace, employers have been attempting to increase productivity by restricting employee activity online, especially those of a personal nature. For example, they prohibit access to social networking sites, instant messaging services and personal email accounts.

Although those measures aim to ensure that employees focus on the work at hand, it does not solve the larger issue: ICTs have irrevocably changed the business environment, and we are still grappling with how best to harness them to increase our productivity. To be clear, it is unfair to blame ICTs for challenges we might be experiencing to get things done in our personal and professional lives. ICTs are tools, and we should be in control of how we use any tool to achieve our goals.

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3 Comments

  • I like this. It represents a challenge to the received wisdom. We often hear anecdotal accounts of local traders, farmers and fisher folks using cell phones to obtain marketing intellegence and reducing the time required to accomplish certain tasks.

    • ICTs can and had improved our lives. What I was hoping to highlight is the fact that the situation can sometimes get out hand…. It is easy to get overwhelmed by the amount of information that comes our way, but the onus is on us to figure out how best to manage and not blame the tools.

  • Indeed the challenge is that there is a deluge of the tools. This, to me, links well with the other article on this same site that talked about IT and Education. Probably greater need for all school leavers to have had IT in their curriculum . They would begin early learning the art of prioritising what components of IT are helpful and when.

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