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March 18, 2005

Performance Tip
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By Tim O'Connor

Take a look around your office and ask yourself, "Of all the technology that surrounds me, how much of it do I really use effectively? How much of the functionality and features of all these electronic tools help improve my productivity on a daily basis?" If your answer is "less than 20%", you're not alone.

Spending on technology in the workplace is one of the hallmarks of our time. During the past 50 years, companies have spent billions of dollars on technology in a search for gains in productivity. But is it paying off? One of the first studies into the "productivity paradox" provided us with a resounding "not really" for office workers.

In 1991, the Harvard Business Review reported a meager 0.2% increase in productivity for white-collar workers from 1962 to 1991. During that period, capital expenditures on technology per white-collar worker increased five-fold.

But that was 14 years ago; surely we've figured it out by now! Maybe not.

Fast-forward to the new millennium and the release of the "National Work-Life Conflict Study" by Health Canada. This study looked at 31,500 employees in large organizations (500+ employees).

According to one of the authors, Linda Duxbury of Carleton University, technology is enabling workers to work longer hours, but "It's not a straight link of more hours equals more productivity. Just because you can reach people quicker does not mean they can perform the task quicker. What's happened is the ability to communicate has increased tremendously, but the ability to get the job done has not gone up at the same pace."

In fact, the distraction and constant interruption from our technology tools may actually be stealing our productivity. For instance, two years ago at CeBIT, the largest European technology show, Microsoft VP Linda Stone coined the phrase "continuous partial attention". The technology that surrounds us in the workplace continually moves us from one priority to the next, with little or no time for focus. We constantly are drawn to the urgent, not necessarily the important.

Further evidence of the impact of technology was published last year by the American Management Association. According to the AMA, office workers are now spending a full two hours per day just dealing with their inbox, much of which may not be optimal use of our time. A just recently released survey by Microsoft Corporation called the Personal Productivity Challenge drew responses from 38,000 people in 200 countries. Survey finds workers average only three productive days per week. What does that cost your organization in hard dollars? Most common productivity pitfalls are unclear objectives, lack of team communication, ineffective meetings followed by unclear priorities and procrastination. These new survey results highlight the necessity for workers to get better training and strategies on how to get the most out of productivity software like MS Outlook, Lotus Notes and GroupWise.

The Microsoft survey respondents also said they grapple with the need to work longer hours and the desire for better work-life balance makes them rely more on technology which continues to fall short on their promises.

So what can we do to increase productivity and stay afloat in this digital deluge? The first step is to go back to basic principles and recognize that tools of all types, be it a hammer or a laptop are subordinate to the task, not vice versa. Tools exist to support procedures. So ask yourself these four questions:

  • What is the work process that the tool is supporting?
  • What process am I using to deal with a full e-inbox?
  • What process is being used to plan and capture information from key conversations and meetings?
  • What process is being used to complete high priority tasks?

A clear understanding of process is required before deciding what tool or tools are needed.

Getting the right result requires a combination of the right tasks, processes and tools. Technology alone will not make us more productive - we need to make technology the slave to our best practices and not become slaves to technology.
Tim O'Connor is a senior consultant with Priority Management.

Start today to develop the skills that will help you master your technology. By developing essential skills such as choice/time planning, eliminating unclear objectives, improving team communication, correcting ineffective meetings followed by understanding how to identify the important from the urgent so priorities don't fall through the cracks. Once you have processes in place for personal organization, work-life balance and workload management you will improve every aspect of your life.

Go to these links to learn more:
Working Sm@rt with Microsoft Outlook
Working Sm@rt with Lotus Notes
Working Sm@rt with Novell GroupWise

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