Technology and productivity – a faux ami?

17 Nov 2016 | 4 min read

You send a fourth email clarifying what you really meant. The person you’re speaking to is a colleague - sat only 20 metres away. Frustratingly, they’re still not getting your point. And the real problem is not that it’s taken far more energy and time than a simple face-to-face conversation, but that this is a daily occurrence. Instead of being a great liberator, technology has shackled many of our daily work interactions. The truth is that technology can be a false economy.

It is difficult to argue against technology without coming across as a Luddite or eye-rollingly contrarian. To avoid such accusations, I would like to frame my argument around the following particulars:

  1. Business is driven by productivity
  2. Productivity is the efficiency of converting inputs into outputs
  3. Technology can accelerate efficiency
  4. BUT technology ≠ productivity

While the above might be overly reductive, the contention is that technology is no guarantee of productivity. The opening anecdote is a simple illustration of how technology sometimes gives the appearance of speed, but in reality lacks true effectiveness. The problem lies not in technology per se, but the problem is with over-reliance on it – when tech goes from tool to crutch.

Networks are built on human interaction, not carbon copies

I’m not saying we should go back to the Dewey Decimal System and retire Google (thanks mate, it’s been a good run) – I’m saying we should seek to avoid the false economies of technology. Maybe instead of writing that email where your tone is hard to convey, suggest a call or meeting. Not only will you benefit from the nuances of body language and tone, there are added benefits around building rapport and networking. No one has ever built powerful networks based solely on nicely-worded emails or carefully curated IMs.

Relationships, whether personal or business in nature, require human interaction. It’s been true for me: if I disagree, require a favour or need to agree a compromise, I will always try my utmost to meet people face-to-face. If you reflect on how you would like to be communicated with – there’s a likelihood for many situations, a meeting would be preferable than email. This isn’t a war on email – often email is the proper and most effective channel –rather it is a challenge on whether the default to email/IM is best.

But what about work collaboration…?

Turning specifically to collaboration in the workplace, technology can be a great enabler. My mind instantly turns to tools such as Slack, Google Drive and vid-con software. It’s easy to argue that technology has vastly accelerated our capability to collaborate, especially across time and space. But let’s reflect on how technology can undermine true collaboration.

It’s a well parodied trope in office comedies – the technology doesn’t work and zero work is done as a result. A facilitator will spend thirty minutes setting up a virtual “board” where people can add sticky notes via an app on their phone (which must be downloaded and the WiFi is patchy…and you can’t remember your iTunes password) – instead of simply using actual sticky notes and paper. These situations are easy targets in a way – easy because the actual problem at the heart of those illustrations is not technology but its incompetent or clumsy use. However, I wonder how many times in the past few months you might recall something similar happening? Situations where the promise of technology to simplify was belied by the fact it has added more complexity.

Get to the point…please

Maybe the point is boringly predictable – deploy tech in an effective manner. The lazy reliance on technology, over its thoughtful application, is a real stumbling block to effectiveness and trust. There is a risk, if deployed wrong more than a few times, that you build scar tissue within your organisation against the deployment of any technology.

Perhaps the more interesting point is to question your default position. Do you too often revert to email? Do you diffuse responsibility too much by CC’ing everyone under the sun? Does a slick PowerPoint presentation mean you spend less time understanding the problem you’re looking to solve? Does your reliance on spell-check in Word cause troubles elsewhere?

Which?

Remember technology can be a false friend, a faux ami as my French teacher always used to say. The insight here is to properly consider when (and when not) technology can help your producitvity. It’s about judging when it will help and when more traditional human interaction will be best. And it’s not technology versus no technology, it’s about often about which technology. Sometimes Alexander Graham Bell’s invention will reap greater benefits than the various applications of the invention of Tim Berners-Lee.

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