Summary : one of the most frequent arguments used in favor of the implementation of an internal social network is productivity improvement through the ability to access and mobilize resources more easily. While that’s an undisputable truth at the individual level (and provided the tool is used by enough people), it does not mean that the company is made more productive : optimizing tasks and optimizing the chain of tasks that lead to the final deliverable, what is the only thing that counts, are not the same thing. So, companies will have to consider their whole production processus and identify their bottlenecks that prevent the chain from taking the most of local improvements.
One of the promises that usually come with a social network (and even with “anything 2.0″) is that some time will be saved. Since, in order to deliver the expected results, people and knowledges have to be put together in order to make progress along a processus, the more these resources are available and accessible, the faster problems are solved, solutions are found and the better decisions are.
So, here’s a very usual indicator : if any employee losts 38 minutes a day to find information, documents or people, if he can save 5, 10 or 15 minutes a day, it means x minutes a week, y minutes a year, what can easily be turned into money. By saving 5 minutes a day, your employees will make you save billions every year.
Hearing such a thing, and even if the promise is seducing and the logics credible, many managers feel there’s something wrong and they’re often right : 5 minutes saved every day, or even 30 may equal to…no saving for the company. But we must not throw the baby out with the bathwater : it’s possible to deliver the promise provided we focus on the right thing.
5 minutes saved at the employee level are…saved at the employee level
So imagine that an employee can save these much-touted 5 minutes a day ? Does it mean that he’ll be productive 1/2h more a week ? 5 minutes is the time for a coffee break and there are many chances he will use the time he saved for his own purpose. He may also use it to cool off, knowing that even unconsciously he’ll adapt his pace to deliver at the due date. So if he realizes he can save time on some tasks there are many chances that he’ll take advantage of that to slow down or start later. I don’t even mention the case when these five minutes are 20 times 15 seconds…
Of course that’s a positive thing for the organization if employees can cool off, take the time to discuss etc… But that’s not what they were expecting at the beginning..
Optimizing tasks is useless
In fact, the whole value proposal relies on the optimization of a given task : search (whatever people are looking for). Yet, search is only one task, even a sub-task, in a more global processus.
Finding the right information or the right person helps to achieve any assigned task faster. So they can start the next earlier and so on and, at the end of the week, they would be more productive. That’s good for their individual evaluation and they’ll even be rewarded. But what’s the benefit for the organization ? None. The organization may even lose by rewarding people for something that did not change anything.
Generally, people are a link in a much longer chain. The task one achieves is necessary for another to start his part of the work and so on. If the first does things faster but the one who have to carry on or the manager that has to validate are not able to react as fast, some time will be saved for one employee but nothing will change for the company because the overall performance of the whole processus won’t be improved and, at the end, the client (internal or external) won’t be served faster. The only consequence of one employee being more productive is more files, emails and to dos for the others. That increases the pressure on the othere, brings more confusion, make things more complicated because they have to re-priorize things continuoulsy and disperse. In the worst case they’ll try to increase theyr own pace to keep up the with other’s and make more mistakes.
Optimizing people’s work at an individual scale seldom brings the expected results if the processus is not rethought and limiting factors, bottlenecks are not dealed with. It implies individual needs and actions are seen as understood as a part of a longer process that is sometimes formalized, sometimes informal (so to be identified).
It reminds me of a situation I had to deal with a few years ago. A manager was complaining that, despite of all the many undertaken efforts, the productivity of his team was not improving. Of course, he was thinking that employees had to be blamed on for that while the whole staff was close to explode due to the impressive amount of work they had to do and the high level of pressure. At the end, it was made clear that, since the manager had to validate all the files his staff has worked on before pushing it to another team…he didn’t have enough time to deal with all his team was producing. All the efforts the make the team more productive were dashed because he didn’t paid attention to his own role in the processus.
Understanding the whole processus is mandatory
So, it’s easy to understand that, once people’s day to day work has been explored with them and that some new practices that may make them more efficient, productive, have been identified, it’s important to think it as a part of a more global chain, to understand what one’s job serves (and whom), and look for bottlenecks. These bottlecks limit the overall performance of the chain and are often people at the center of a network (even informal), those most of the information has to go through. So they may be managers.
Then, each case has its own story, context and solution. Maybe the decision making process is not relevant, maybe an “a priori” validation is not necessary since corrections can be made afterwards when needed, maybe this part of the job can be handle by other people, maybe the only fact he can access his business tools while away from the office would be enough, maybe the “innovation board” does not meet often enough to deal with all the ideas that are submitted….
“Anything 2.0″ can make many things more fluid but won’t solve the bottlneck question that bridle “anyhting 2.0″ and prevent it from bringing significant performance improvements. Now it’s up to HR and managers to deal with that.
Finally it’s a very old debate that is much older than enterprise 2.0, it’s all about the pursuit of a local maximum vs. a global optimum.
Anyway, measuring any link of the chain is often misleading : what has to be optimized and measured is the whole chain.