Personal Computing

Dec. 21, 2004
PCs can't improve productivity on their own.

Despite the riotous instability of stock prices lately, some prognosticators are advising us not to worry. Sure, the stock market has experienced unprecedented growth without a significant downslide for seven straight years. And sure, the market has always been cyclical in the past. But we're in the midst of a revolution, say the pundits, an information revolution. Spurred by personal computers and the Internet, the economy has morphed in a fundamental way. Information technology has ushered in a paradigm-smashing leap in productivity that may have made recession pass. Not so fast, say those who've studied these issues. It's not even clear that personal computers have affected productivity appreciably, let alone leading to the kind of improvements that would allow us to sail off with our mutual fund investments into a tranquil prosperity. The numbers are telling. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures show that, despite the personal computer "revolution" and the billions invested in the technology, productivity gains measured in output per hour have remained at a feeble annual rate of around 1% for the past 30 years, which pales in comparison with the brawny productivity growth of 3% annually experienced during the 1950s and 1960s. Common sense tells you that personal computers should increase productivity. They plan and budget more effectively than a calculator or table. They keep track of people and things more easily than a roster or list. They communicate more efficiently than a typewriter or telephone. They can tap far more research sources than the largest collection of periodicals or books. Even though some studies have shown that PCs have had a positive impact on productivity, and even though some experts contend that such intangibles as convenience and service don't show up in the statistics, the fact remains that the productivity figures haven't budged. This anomaly has been called the "productivity paradox," and if you look at your own work habits and those of people around you, you'll see some of the reasons why. Those memos with their fancy fonts and elaborate formatting take longer to create than the simple typewritten memos of the past. Likewise with those slick presentations adorned with graphics, sound effects, and animation. E-mail makes it easy to stay in the loop, but wading through scores of nonessential messages each day is a time sink. The Web can be an invaluable informational resource, but the temptation is great to jump from one site to another, each in turn less relevant to your work needs -- not to mention using the Web to shop, check out sports scores, and engage in chitchat. Then there's the equipment maintenance. Whereas in the past only specialists got silicon under their fingernails, today everybody has to deal with software bugs, hardware conflicts, and system crashes. And when the machine is cooperating, it lures you to tinker endlessly in pursuit of PC perfection. Experts have tried to quantify all this. A few years ago a survey by SBT Accounting Systems of San Rafael, Calif., showed that the typical computer user in a business setting wastes 5.1 hours a week on PCs. Another study, by Forrester Research of Cambridge, Mass., showed that 20% of employees' time on the Internet at work doesn't involve their jobs. This is not to say that you should trade in your Pentium II machine for an IBM Selectric or prevent workers from having Internet access. It's not the technology that's the villain. It's how we use it. Because the machines are so dumb -- all they really do is add and subtract zeros and ones -- we have to be smart in managing them. Look at the "total cost of ownership" when buying PCs. Cheap computers that are more prone to break down will cost more over time than those constructed with quality components. Swinging the pendulum back a bit toward more centralized management of computer resources can also save money. Make sure that all those who need it, including top management, receive enough training to be efficient at the keyboard. When tackling a project, balance substance and style. Looks count, but they're not paramount. Establish policies governing e-mail and Web surfing. Guidelines are usually more effective in the long term than prohibitions, including the use of programs that block verboten Web sites. Information technology is no panacea. Look at such unforeseen consequences as the Year 2000 fiasco. It's no chimera either. PCs are merely an extension of ourselves, foibles and all. Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at [email protected] or

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