ICT is not always a source of productivity

One of the commonly-held beliefs of managers is that productivity improvements can be best done through the development and implementation of new or upgraded ICT systems. The McKell Productivity Report (2012) writes:

... there is no question that ICT was critical to the productivity surge of the 1990s ... technological advances in computing power and the internet greatly lowered cost of information acquisition and processing and enabled the restructuring of businesses processes (such as Just-in-Time production and distribution) and development of
new products (use of Skype for communicating and buying behaviours using online shopping) ...

However, the potential for productivity improvements purely through ICT now appears to have peaked. Again from McKell:

... the typical pattern of major technological change ... [occurs] in cycles with
many decades between the peak in each cycle ... Following the introduction of a new technology, productivity increases rapidly as it diffused through the economy, but the rate of productivity growth from this innovation declines as its uptake is saturated and scope for fruitful adaptation and extension diminishes ... whatever the productivity gains generated by ICT over the last decade, they were insufficient to fully offset the decline in measured [multi-factor productivity in Australia] over the 2000s.

This makes sense. Most highly successful ICT innovations have revolved around either:

  • automation of routine transactions where interactions were highly predictable (automated interactive voice-recognition (IVR) systems, automatic teller machines (ATMs), self-service online shopping), or
  • increasing the speed and fidelity of communications between parties (email, IM, websites, system-to-system integration)

Having thus picked most of the low-hanging fruit, ICT is turning its focus to the less-repeatable, more-contextual organisational interactions: client services, project management, case management, and document/records management.

It's fair to say that ICT's record in these areas has been less than stellar.

Tales of staff and customer woe abound. Being forced to perform endless jumping through hoops or work around the system entirely, just to complete a simple negotiated task is particularly commonplace.

Here's the truth: Computer systems excel at automating process work. But they suck at automating practice work because practice work means exercising judgement.

In practice-based work, the use of processes should be limited to coordination between team members: priority setting, status management, consistent templates, and so on. Checklists have clear benefits when used as stage gates and aide memoires; not so much when they insult people's intelligence and simply become an obstacle to be mindlessly navigated to get to the "real work".

In short, the use of ICT systems for practice work should support the practitioner, never limit the scope of possible responses. Unfortunately, if you approach an ICT system from a process mindset, designs are closed and attempt to prohibit straying from "approved" courses of action. This generates failure demand and leads to an ICT system that hurts productivity, rather than helping it by being designed to support the unpredictability and inventiveness that's needed to effectively handle practice work.

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