Getting ahead in the productivity race

In Lewis Carroll’s book “Alice Through the Looking Glass” there’s an encounter between Alice and the Red Queen. In this encounter, Alice and the Red Queen start to run. Faster and faster they go until Alice is nearly exhausted. Eventually Alice looks around and finds herself under the same tree she had been when she started running. Alice asks the Red Queen how can this be? The Queen replies:

“Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

It’s a fantasy story with huge parallels to the world we live in. We are all running quite hard, but if you continue to do what you are doing today, I can pretty much guarantee that you will be out of business within 5 years. There are global shifts taking place all around us that are going to require us to run a different, faster race. We either disrupt ourselves or someone else disrupts us.

(If you want to understand some of the global shifts, Mary Meeker’s presentation gives some great insights.)

In the world of workplace technology, it used to be quite simple. We would undertake huge transformation projects that would deploy a new version of Windows and Office. We’d adopt every other version of Windows because that was fast enough, thanks.

The reality was that apart from the new technology, there wasn’t much that was transformational to the way people worked after we had finished. They still wrote email, filled in spreadsheets, authored documents and created presentations. There were some efficiency savings around the edge, but nothing truly transformational to the way people worked. The main reason for transformation was to keep the software current because the vendor didn’t want to support the old technology.

Today people expect to be able to work on the applications that they like, wherever they are, on whatever device they choose. The volume and diversity of applications has exploded. Work can be done in almost any location; we expect mobile Internet access. The choice of devices is expanding all of the time, and we are about to see an explosion in sensors.

In this world, it’s no longer Corporate IT that defines the pace of change; it’s the providers of applications and devices. Corporate IT doesn’t get to say when the latest version of iOS is deployed; Apple defines that. Corporate IT doesn’t get to constrain what version of Chrome a team uses; Google does that. Going forward, corporate IT doesn’t get to define when Windows 10 is updated; Microsoft does that. None of these organizations are wanting to retain the multi-year refresh cycles that we are used to. They want to give us something new every few weeks, and that’s now what we expect.

These providers of applications and devices are constantly making new capabilities available. As an example, this week Microsoft released a new capability into Office 365 called Planner. It’s a team-planning capability, a bit like Trello and other similar applications. There’s no extra cost; it’s there for free. You’ll see a new tile, and from that point you can use it. But the availability of a tool does not make people more productive. It’s the use of the tool that makes people productive.

Productivity comes at the intersection of technology capabilities, people’s skills and the spaces in which they are working. We are all in a productivity race with other organizations. That race is run with tools — the better the tools, the faster we run. The race takes place on an obstacle course; the better the course, the quicker we can reach the next destination. The person who makes the best use of tools has a distinct advantage, as new tools become available every week. Picking the right tools, exploiting the new tools and retiring the old tools are core skills now for any team wanting to be anywhere near the front of the productivity race.

It’s worth remembering at this point that everyone else is getting the new tools at the same time you are. You no longer get ahead through the deployment of tools, but in reducing the time it takes to exploit the ones that create value and ignore the ones that don’t.

To get ahead today, teams indeed need to “run at least twice as fast” — and that’s going to require productive technology, productive places and productive people. The technology is just one part of it.

Image: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons


Graham ChastneyGraham Chastney is a Technologist in CSC’s Global Infrastructure Services. He has worked in the arena of workplace technology for over 25 years, starting as a sysprog supporting IBM DISOSS and DEC All-in-1. Latterly Graham has been working with CSC’s customers to help them understand how they exploit the changing world of workplace technology. Graham lives with his family in the United Kingdom.

Twitter: @grahamchastney

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