IT Can Help Productivity -- That Is, If It Doesn't Hurt It

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Researchers have long been fascinated by IT's effect on productivity. Though the introduction of new technologies like PCs and e-mail has had an obvious impact, in recent years there has been much debate over just how much IT contributes. Last year, for instance, Harvard Business School professor Andrew McAfee took issue with economist Robert Gordon's contention that corporate cost-cutting and performance incentives, rather than IT, are the keys to productivity increases.


A new piece of research from three academics, Sinan Aral, Erik Brynjolfsson and Marshall Van Alstyne, indicates that there may be both a positive and a negative correlation. According to a CIOZone.com article about the study, the researchers found that employees of a midsize recruiting company that used databases most frequently were able to work on more tasks simultaneously, generating more revenue for the company.


Yet there was a tipping point at which multi-tasking facilitated by tools such as e-mail slowed the completion of projects. The researchers wrote:

Multitasking beyond a certain point reduces productivity. When employees juggle too many simultaneous projects, work gets backed up and productivity suffers.

This probably comes as no surprise to the folks who find themselves often distracted at work by heavy doses of e-mail, instant messaging and other such communications. Burton Group last year began floating a term to describe it, "info-stress," suggesting that companies needed to work on developing the right mix of "attentional" and "attention-shielding" technologies to help workers cope. Attentional tools include XML syndication and personalization, while e-mail and IM filtering are examples of shielding tools. Burton Group dubbed the overall concept enterprise attention management. (Is there such a thing as being stressed by too many acronyms?)


Whatever they call it, some companies do appear to be trying to improve employees' focus by minimizing technological distractions. Google, Yahoo and Apple are among companies that encourage employees to check their laptops and other electronic devices at the door during meetings, as ABC News reported earlier this year.


Another interesting aspect of the research covered in the CIOZone.com story was an examination of e-mail communications patterns. The researchers found that employees at the center of e-mail flows were more productive than their colleagues on the periphery. Among their findings: Those at the upper organizational levels of the company received more information than other workers. Men were more likely than women to get all types of information and more likely to see news. Employees were more inclined to share specific work-related discussion topics with people with whom they shared interests, while general news appeared to circulate more randomly.


Noted the researchers:

Information workers who receive a greater volume of novel information or who receive it sooner complete projects faster and generate significantly more revenue for the firm.

Their findings reminded me of a discussion I had late last year with Corey Phelps, an assistant professor and Neal & Jan Dempsey Faculty Fellow in the Management and Organization Department at the University of Washington Business School. Phelps and a colleague examined how companies employ clustering -- relationships that tie workers to each other -- and reach -- how readily employees connect with each other -- to boost innovation. The two found that companies with high degrees of both clustering and reach were the most innovative (defined in the study as those with the most patents), while highly clustered alliances with limited reach were less successful.


Echoing the findings of the Aral/Brynjolfsson/VanAlstyne research, communication flows appear to help determine how much companies accomplish. Says Phelps:

As we know from being involved in cliques, the beneficial side of being in a clique is that information defuses very quickly. But if you're trying to innovate, you need new and diverse information. If you're not connected to cliques that are pursuing information the same way you are, or if that information takes a long way to travel from the different cliques to you, you're not going to be very innovative because you no longer have access to new information. So too much clustering, or clustering alone, can be bad.