Today’s rambling is on my Theory of “Relative Productivity.” Not productivity per se, but relative productivity. You see, my theory is that much of what we have been programmed to view as progress (i.e., increased productivity from technology) is quite often no improvement at all, and frequently counterproductive.
Now well into retirement age, I’ve seen a lot of change in my years on this earth. For instance, I was born before there was TV, and my boyhood home had a coal furnace (I was nearly a teenager before it was converted to natural gas). In my early days in the management consulting business, reports were produced on typewriters – copies came from carbon paper (if any of you remember what that was).
Before you conclude, though, that I’m just an old dinosaur who is resistant to change, let me point out that I’m composing this on my desktop computer (I also use a laptop), I have high speed internet access, my computer is connected to a scanner, I carry a Blackberry (which is synched to my desktop for email), I Skype with my grandchildren, and text frequently enough that it’s cheaper for me to buy the unlimited plan. While never an “early adopter,” I have come into the 21st century with a minimum of kicking, screaming and resistance to new things. And, I must admit that some of them are near and dear to my heart. Being on the downside of my need for adventure, I seldom wander off into new territory without my GPS. In my advancing old age I’ve also given up on remembering my top 40 telephone numbers and enjoy just punching them up on my Blackberry (or even just telling the phone who it is I wish to speak with). I’ve even used Google Earth to check out the new house (and how much envy I should muster up) when my friends several states removed from mine send me a change of address notice. So you see, I’m not stuck in the dark ages of the 50’s and 60’s.
That said, however, let me take you back in time – to a simpler day; the days of manual typewriters and carbon paper. In those days, if you needed to document something with a memorandum, you could only effectively copy two or three people (such were the limitations of carbon paper). You sent the original to the primary recipient, kept a copy for your files, and that left, perhaps, up to three more for distribution (assuming you could actually produce five readable documents with the carbon paper process). That meant that you kept distribution only to those who really, REALLY needed to know. And, if you were the recipient of a copy, chances were pretty good that you DID need to know.
Among the first of the well-intentioned technological advances was the Xerox copier. No longer dependent upon carbon paper, now you could make corrections to the original document using (gasp) another technological advance – whiteout. And, with those two advances, you could now copy 15 or 20, even 40 people, with little or no effort. Quite an improvement, right? Well, yes, except that now no one had to give thought to who actually needed to know – they could just paper the world to cover their backsides and, perhaps, to give the illusion of importance to what they were working on, or gild their effort meter with their managers. Many, if not most, of these newly minted recipients had no interest in the contents, certainly no need to know; but now all the extra people on the distribution list had to actually read the darn thing to make sure they weren’t missing something that could bite them in the butt. So yes, copies became easy, but now we had dozens of folks wasting untold hours reading material that was irrelevant to them – at best, a trade-off.
Then came facsimile machines and overnight delivery – and with them new and unrealistic expectations of response times by those who sent them. All of a sudden, we were fielding phone calls at 1:30 wondering why we hadn’t called back with the answers to their problems (after all, Fed Ex delivered by 11AM). Yeah, right, I was just sitting here doing nothing, waiting for FedEx so I could respond to you. I don’t have any other clients, I never leave my office or leave town – my world revolves around only you. Now, instead of being able to devote relatively uninterrupted and truly productive blocks of time to meaty problems, the days became a blur of breaking off a project to respond to faxes and FedEx deliveries. Responses were not always fully thought out, and prompted many a follow-up phone call to provide additions, corrections, or clarifications. Not to mention the calls to determine what the fax actually contained (early faxes were often partially if not largely unreadable). Score a big one for the bad guys on this one. Productivity took it on the chin. And the worst of it was (is) that most of the issues weren’t urgent to anyone but the sender. Problems weeks, months or years in the making suddenly demanded solutions NOW – just because someone finally had realized it WAS a problem.
This set of problems (read productivity killers) expanded geometrically with email. Now, huge portions of days are spent reading irrelevant tripe, poorly constructed missives from seemingly illiterate senders, responding to more of it than should be necessary – and it tracks you down wherever you are (even while you sleep). On top of that, some percentage of it is infected with viruses. How much time do you spend installing and updating firewalls, blocking junk mail senders, and the like? Remember, no one ever gave a typewriter a virus!
Additional examples are everywhere, but I’ve made my point (I hope) for today.
I know you can never go backwards, at least not until global nuclear warfare takes us back to the Stone Age, but a little restoration of sanity in the system would be nice. Ah well, hope springs eternal!