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Working better in the digital age

Robert Solow famously said in 1987 that the computer age was everywhere except for the productivity statistics.

Looking at any long or short term periods, we can see that while output per person grows each year, the pace of change never alters. The advent of email or laptops, or the microchip or phone, or collaborative documents, intranets, Wikipedia, smartphones, air conditioning, have done nothing to change the gradient.

We may talk of revolutions, but the workplace has evolved, and slowly, and while productivity still grows, it’s growing more slowly than ever.

I’m not economist, but my sneaky feeling is the more we can do, the more we do things that don’t need to be done. We may routinely be optimizing something that doesn’t need to exist, or hitting KPI’s that don’t matter.

A laptop may make the whole day your working day, a smartphone may make the world your office, but all it leads to is working expanding to fit the time available.

We may have faster computers that allow multitasking, but’s it more often snatched glances at Instagram than toggling between worksheets.

I wonder a lot about how much thought we give “how we work”, in the most basic and crude way.


In some ways the birth of Management theory and then consulting started around the 1880’s with the time and motion studies, most commonly devised by Frederick W. Taylor.

Quite simply he’d observe in great detail how people did their jobs and write it down, in this systematic observation he’d break a job into its component parts and measured each to the hundredth of a minute.

A simple example was looking at people shoveling various materials, and could see that many would try to lift too much, and do so slowly, and many would lift too little and frenetically move suboptimal amounts. So he designed the perfect size of shovel for reach material, and in many cases output increased by 200%.

At this time around , nine out of every 10 working people did manual work ( making or moving things, in areas like farming, mining, manufacturing, or transportation) today it’s less than 1 on 10, with most people working in “knowledge work”

I would love to see someone doing a time and motion study today.

Rather than sweaty bodies lifting too much pig iron, or exhausted workers, moving little around, we’d see

- Badly run meetings with far too many people attending and no outfits.

- People perfecting decks that never get presented because nobody got the message the CEO had canceled the idea

- People working on ideas nobody likes much, but everyone said “were OK” because of the Abilene paradox

-People endlessly compiling weekly reports that nobody reads

Technology has changed so much of what we can do, we assumed long ago by now we’d work for a handful of hours per week, but we seemingly work harder than ever

We should take time to observe all we do, and focus on the simple things that matter and how best to do them

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