I spied Comment in this last weekend’s US print edition of the Financial Times, titled “Computers are making generalists of us all” that struck a huge chord with me. The piece was written by Tim Hartford, the FT’s Undercover Economist.
Mr. Hartford starts by highlighting an observation I have blogged on in the past. It so happens that Bank of England’s staff blog posted a piece a few weeks before Christmas that noted how UK productivity dipped just about the same time as smartphone shipments got going. You can see the chart here: Is the economy suffering from the crisis of attention?
The Bank of England staff blog seeks to call out research that shows how our focus in the work place is decreasing due to increasing interruptions. Examples abound from email practices, news feeds, text messages and more and more of the connected world. In fact, nodding to Niall Ferguson’s forthcoming book (The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook- my copy is on order) the networked world we live in is also, it seems, a low-focus world. The more we connect and digitize, the more the chances for interruption.
The blog asks if the increasing disruptions and associated loss of focus is one cause of the lack of improving productivity. In fact, as noted by the chart shown, productivity growth is actually slowing just at the time that new technologies encouraging disruption are in the increase. The example used is the smartphone. I have blogged in the past how email and smartphones are not necessarily sources of productivity growth. The effort to read and respond to an email has not changed much in 30 or more years. We just do more of them.
Mr. Hartford of the FT goes further in his Comment. He looks at how, in the past, work used to be compartmentalized as a step on the journey to specialization and how this led to increased productivity. With increasing digitization and the resulting ‘enablement’ of each worker, Mr. Hartford gives examples whereby specialization of some work is lost as each of us are enabled and so operate as generalists. The self-service mentality, it seems, is making us more equal. Just look at how we book our travel, write our letters or communications, process expenses, and think of any other regular work you do every day or every week.
Mr. Hartford explains this shift and suggests that neither approach is wrong- specialization or generalization. What he does call out is the lack of management and organizational skill to know when each approach is most appropriate. We seem enamored with self-service, as it if is seen as a panacea for all ills. This sounds little different to classic cyclical dialogue related to centralization versus decentralization. Anyone who has worked in a medium and larger firm knows this cycle between extremes takes place every 7 to 9 years. But digitization and the relentless growth in connectivity we are all part of is not a cycle; it is a one way direction. So Mr. Hartford highlights how this must be part of the explanation for slowing productivity. Perhaps we need to get better at managing our own time to help since our leaders seem unable to organize us effectively. Don’t tell me you never heard that one before?