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Productivity : this elusive graal

A few weeks ago  I threw a bottle in the sea on the productivity question, a graal everyone’s looking for without really getting it. I had a lot of answers on my french blog which inspires me to write this synthesis.

I was sure there will be a lot of discussions but I didn’t think there was such a gap between what productivity is supposed to be (a ratio) and how people consider and apply in their everyday job, with a wide variety of senses.

• Good old productivity is dead : historically defined as being a the ratio of the production to the quantity of production factors, productivity is getting more and more hard to define because the quantity of factors is something hard to evaluate in a knowledge economy.

• Productivity is more about reaching objectives : because it’s hard to prove a mathematic and reliable link between means of productions and production, people have a tendancy to focus on results. At an individual scale, there is no link between the time people spend and the result they get. So lot of commenters said that they consider being productive when achieving their objectives.

• Final evaluation and instant control. What’s above causes lots of issues when it’s time to evaluate productivity. If an a posteriori evaluation is possible, regarding the reached reasults, it can’t be observed at a given moment. An employee physically absent, inactive, can be intelectually productive. A busy employee can be doing things that don’t impact the results, or may only seem busy. So, in order to put their mind at ease, many managers fight agains what may cause improductivity because they don’t really know of to positively impact productivity.

• Productivity is defined negatively : since it’s hard to tell if someone is productive and why, productive employees are defined compared to unproductive ones. So being productive is not to do such or such things.

• Employee’s four statuses : legacy conception of work, inherited from the industrial economy of the middle of the XXth century, supposes that an employee is productive or improductive. Today’s context is different : an employee can have many statuses:

  • Inactive  : he doesn’t do anything
  • Activated : ready but idle
  • busy : active but doesn’t contribute to objective’s achievement.
  • productive : active and contribute to objective’s achievement.

This show the limit of the tendancy to keep people busy, whatever what they’re asked to do.

• Objectives matter : if productivity is defined by the fact objectives are reached, much attention has to be paid to how objectives are defined. Don’t forget people must feel they can be reached in order to feel concerned. The best way to have unproductive employees is to give them unreachable objectives fallen from the sky and say “it’s you job, I don’t care”. In a perfect world, objectives have to be negociated and employees should be able to say whether they find them reachable or not.

I found it interesting to realize how, if everybody knows that productivity is supposed to be a ratio, many people use another way to evaluate productivity when they face the issue. According to me the main issue is to measure both outcomes and production factors because of a question of perimeter : in a global and interconnected organization, most of times, outcomes can’t be mesure on the same perimeter as the one where resources are used. So the more you focus on local management, the harder it is to measure productivy. All these things are everything but trivial when facing management issues related to enterprise 2.0 adoption.

Head of Employee and Client Experience @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of Employee and Client Experience @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

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