This website covers topics on knowledge management, personal effectiveness, theory of constraints, amongst other topics. Opinions expressed here are strictly those of the owner, Jack Vinson, and those of the commenters.

The fun of productivity measures

A few people mentioned Jonathan Spira's post on Defining Productivity for the Knowledge Age

Productivity is a term you may hear on a daily basis but have you ever stopped to consider its meaning, especially within the context of knowledge work and knowledge workers?  It probably isn’t what you think it is.

He defines the basic problem and promises more in upcoming writing.  It will be interesting to see what he has to say.

This kind commentary continues in various circles, whether it is knowledge management or project management or any other human activities.  How do you define success?  How do you determine whether a given "change" is going to improve things or harm things or leave them the same?

One of the commenters begins to get it right: most companies measure the wrong things.  We measure things like

  • the time people spend in front of the computer and then claim that an improved search appliance will improve the productivity of knowledge workers by reducing the amount of time spent searching. 
  • the new project management software will ensure that people hit their milestones. 
  • up-time on Machine XYZ will go from 90% to 98%. 
  • net present value of task 362 on project 22. 
  • number of messages in your inbox*.

Great.  But why do we need these things?  There is an underlying belief that these local measures have some connection to the overall success of the business.  So if that knowledge worker is only spending 5% of their time "searching for information" instead of 20%, they must be contributing to the bottom linen with that extra 15% of their time.  Or that improved up-time on any machine is the same as the whole factory producing more salable product.  This isn't true.  Activity does not equate with utility.

What to measure?  The business.  What is it trying to do?  More widgets out the door and sold; more projects completed; higher inventory turns; higher sales.  Most of the measures mentioned above are secondary measures, rather than the primary measures we really want.  But the secondary measures feel like they can be applied to individuals.  The problem is that these then become primary measures of individual success.  And people always game the system to make personal measures look good - particularly when there is money involved.

It's still an open question for me as to how to turn these business-level measures into something useful for knowledge workers.  There are obvious abuses you want to prevent, but beyond "don't be stupid" and "work as quickly as possible and pass it to the next person" how do you calculate how much someone has contributed to the successful completion of Project X?

* Yes, I know I often expound on the value of an empty inbox.  But the empty inbox isn't the point.  The point is having a process by which I manage the flow of stuff across my desk.  And that process helps me take care of the really important stuff that lays between the lines of the papers and mail sitting there.

QOTD: Carl Sagan on intelligence et al

World's simplest productivity method