Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Cost of Lost Productivity--Myth?

In a very ironic twist, while working today, I took a Twitter link to a web article that discussed the distractions that keep us from working. It was like one of those dream inside a dream things in Inception. The article showed statistics for the things that distract us (like social networks and reading Internet articles). It did some quick math and concluded "That hour per day translates into $10,375 of wasted productivity per person per year, assuming an average salary of $30/hour."

I see this reasoning a lot, especially in ROIs and such. "By reducing the support desk's search time by 15% we would save $375,000 a year, justifying the addition of three positions to overhaul and maintain the new knowledgebase files."

The flaw is this: If given that hour back, most people would not get an hour's more work done. Especially the kinds of workers who are in a situation where they can get distracted by email and Internet related things.

I was at an STC conference once where a panel was discussing trends and the topic came up of how technical communicators could show their value. One person made an argument similar to the one above, "By making the support group more efficient we can save $x.xx per year in support costs." I pointed out that in my company (not IBM at the time, BTW) such a claim would have to be supported by the Help Desk manager committing to reducing the head count by that equivalent amount. Otherwise, the money will not have been saved. Jeez, you would have thought I was advocating euthanasia.

But it pointed out the fallacy of the argument. If you really were making folks 15% more efficient, then you should be able to get by with 15% less people. The unwillingness to advocate the headcount reduction shows a lack of faith in the assumption.

We all need to be a little bit skeptical of these "productivity" arguments that assume more output automatically follows more bandwidth. ROIs are bogus unless the customers are writing bigger checks or the company is writing smaller checks.

Now, I need to get back to work.

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