Whisper it quietly: the reputation of IT as an engine of organisational productivity is being called into question. Some are even suggesting that far from making workers more productive, technology is dampening their intelligence.
Clinical trials at King's College, London, funded by HP, have revealed that a serious addiction to email lowers IQ by more than twice as much as smoking marijuana regularly. At the same time, some psychiatrists maintain that the stream of constant interruptions to the workday from applications such as email and instant messaging is, in some cases, inducing attention deficit disorder.
Against that backdrop, the company that has become richest from selling the productivity dream is fighting back. In its latest advertising campaign Microsoft depicts knowledge workers – who have yet to deploy its latest Office software – as digital dinosaurs, on the verge of extinction. And Microsoft is set to push the idea of technology-driven productivity improvements further.
Office 12, due out in the second half of 2006, will enable workers to screen ‘noise' and focus more effectively on important tasks through the use of ‘adaptive filtering' and pattern recognition technology. As Bill Gates, Microsoft's founder and chief software architect, puts it: "As software learns your working preferences, it can flexibly manage your interruptions. If you're working on a high-priority memo under a tight deadline, for example, software should be able to understand this and only allow phone calls or emails from, say, your manager or a family member."
This concept of defining the worker's ‘presence', borrowed from instant messaging, is just one of the ways Microsoft hopes to optimise productivity. Another is enhanced desktop search, though here it is facing off with Google, who recently launched a freely downloadable Enterprise Desktop Search tool. This gives IT administrators control over the product's communication with Google servers to counter security and privacy concerns.
Microsoft's critics insist that by focusing on tools that improve productivity, the software giant is merely fixing problems of its own making. Many productivity gurus advocate stripping away the layers of technological complexity, promoting the seemingly retrograde pleasures of a simple notebook or text file as the best way to stay organised. Workplace experts recommend checking email no more than four times a day as a way of reclaiming control and minimising distractions.
Others still warn against piling technological ‘solutions' on top of each other. A common trap – just as addictive as email – is spending longer searching for personal productivity tools than the time these could ever save when applied.
Web sites like 43 Folders and Lifehacker have sprung up, championing the effective use of productivity technology. Their recommended applications include Firefox, the highly customisable web browser; Evernote, a digital reel of notepaper that can be organised, searched and categorised; newsfeed aggregators like Bloglines; and web-based project management, to-do lists and collaboration tools from start-up 37signals.
"No tool can save you from your own behaviour," warns 43 Folders author Merlin Mann. "Avoid the temptation to blow a week moving your system into the next shiny product until you really understand how you'll be better off having used it. Don't fiddle endlessly, just because it's fun."
This is a good argument – albeit an unintended one – for letting Microsoft add new features to a known and trusted tool like Office every three years or so. But Danny O'Brien, a conference speaker and writer on productivity, is concerned that Microsoft's attempts to be helpful by ‘learning' users' behaviour might end up like Clippy, the animated paper clip that Microsoft had to "retire" with the introduction of Office XP because it irritated so many users. "Clippy is what developers imagine users want but it contributes to the feeling of losing control," says O'Brien, whose forthcoming book on productivity, co-written with Mann, is entitled Life Hacks (the term he coined for the little improvements that streamline personal efficiency).
The root of Microsoft's problem, he claims, is that it is pitching its products to the senior IT management, not the ‘dinosaurs' in the cube farm whose daily life revolves around Outlook, Excel and Word. While he believes CIOs often fail to understand office workers' productivity issues, the solutions are too individual to package in a product bought a thousand seats at a time.
However, O'Brien still has faith in the fundamentals of the technology. The problem is "mostly psychological pain – angst about the thousands of emails in your inbox and not knowing what to do. Productivity has gone up because of computers – they just make you realise that there's so much more that you could do."