Ever since mass acceptance of the personal computer, its proponents have sold it on how much it would improve productivity in the workplace. Ever since, economists and accountants have tried to find the productivity gains, without much success.

Try to take away employees’ PCs, though, and you’ll have the same success you’d have removing rifles from NRA members – you’d have to pry it from their cold, dead fingers. Hence, the “paradox.”
We’ve been talking about measures for the last several columns, and it seems appropriate to wrap up the subject (for now) with a column on productivity and how to measure it.

Step 1: Make sure productivity is a useful thing to measure.

The plain fact is, productivity just doesn’t apply to every role in an organization. That’s why so many intelligent and ingenious people have tried to develop white-collar productivity measures and failed.
When you measure productivity, you’re measuring how much stuff a person, group, or machine can make in a unit of time. Widgets per hour. Applications per day. Pages per minute.

Productivity only matters in repetitive processes that produce or handle similar items. The concept comes from factory work. A factory manufactures a particular kind of thing, and lots of it. The more things it produces in the same amount of time, the smaller the capital and labor cost of each item. That translates to lower prices and higher margins, both Good Things (to use the jargon of Economics).

Some white collar jobs do involve repetitive processes. Call centers, insurance claims processing, mortgage application processing, all have a lot in common with factory work. And in fact, automation demonstrably increases productivity in these areas.

Interactive voice response systems demonstrably generate 400%+ returns on investment. Just the screen-pop feature of computer telephone integration can shave 15 seconds from each telephone call – often a 5 to 10% productivity improvement. Some imaging and workflow systems have literally doubled claims-processing productivity. Measurably.

The only repetitive process in many jobs, though, is attending meetings.

To prove the point, let’s take the ultimate example: a Hollywood screenwriter. Let’s devise a good productivity measure – I know, words typed per minute! Yup, when we make a movie, let’s get our script from the fastest typist.

Well, I don’t know how fast Steven Spielberg and his friends type, and I don’t care. Productivity doesn’t matter at all. Audience appeal is what matters, and guess what? You just can’t devise an objective measure to predict it. You have to rely on judgment.

Productivity is just one measure of Effectiveness, a more general measure of value. For a factory worker the two are more or less synonymous. For a screenwriter, productivity has nothing to do with effectiveness.

That’s one reason we’ve failed to find any productivity improvements from the introduction of computers to the workplace – we’re measuring the wrong thing. What we need are measures of effectiveness, and we have to realize a nasty little fact: often, the only measures of effectiveness are subjective.

There’s another reason for the productivity paradox. Technology has enabled a complete transformation of the workplace. People type their own memos rather than dictating them and running them through several manual revisions. Often, they write e-mail messages instead and dispatch them immediately rather than printing anything at all.

Financial analysis now involves graphing dozens of variations of a financial model instead of running a paper tape three times to make sure you keyed numbers in right.

Research now involves searching on-line databases and the Internet, instead of making trips to the library or asking your company librarian for help.

Basically, the jobs we hold now may have the same titles as 15 years ago, but they have little in common.

Statisticians call this “non-stationary data” and they don’t let you use it in analyzing trends. (I was hoping to use a related term – heteroskedasticity – but couldn’t work it in. Maybe next time.)

Productivity paradox? I don’t really care if I’m productive at all. I care how effective I am. That’s what you should care about, too.

Back during my teenage years in the 60s, I vaguely remember threatening to “take my business elsewhere” to merchants who looked askance at my fringed vest and bellbottoms. (In retrospect they had a point, but luckily all photographs of that period have been blissfully mislaid.)

It scares me to think of the IS managers who must have missed having similar experiences. Take as an example Microsoft’s elimination of concurrent licensing for small businesses. According to fellow InfoWorld columnist Ed Foster, customers are up in arms about this. They’re bothered that Microsoft can so easily force them to spend more, just to stay legal.

When technical matters leave you confused, try to find parallels in other industries. So let’s imagine General Motors decided to make leasing illegal. Would you (a) complain about their unfair business practices; (b) take your lumps and buy one of their cars when you’d really wanted to lease; or (c) shake your head at their stupidity and take your business to Ford?

Microsoft may have a monopoly position in the minds of many IS managers, but they don’t have a monopoly in the marketplace. WordPerfect and WordPro have just as much feature-bloat as MS-Word, and I’m confident Novell and IBM/Lotus would be more than happy to take your money.

Face facts: most IS Managers buy Microsoft products because that’s an easy way to make a safe decision in what has become a commodity marketplace. You have alternatives.

Take the emotion out of selecting your basic PC software, and list your selection criteria. Features? They all have lots of features. Ease of use? They’re all Windows programs – like it or not, Windows imposes a certain sameness to the user interface. Speed? They’re Windows programs – speed is a thing of the past.

Right now, most IS Managers have made “product has a long-term future” their only criterion for selecting a word processor, spreadsheet and database – the basic three applications. By doing so they’ve created a self-fulfilling prophesy guaranteed to transfer money from their company coffers to Microsoft.

Take the emotion out of selecting your basic PC software: where’s the risk in taking your business elsewhere? Novell may not find a buyer for WordPerfect and it may vanish from the landscape? Could happen. Then you’d have to convert to something else at a HUGE EXPENSE!

How big? That depends on how you do cost accounting. My guess: the difference between what you’d spend anyway on a version upgrade and the cost of a “competitive upgrade” (what you really pay when you change products) just won’t be that great.

Given the dull sameness of all Windows software, you won’t have a lot of end-user retraining to worry about. At most you’ll have to give your end-users a one-hour orientation.

How about your ability to exchange documents with customers and suppliers? MS-Word has become the de facto standard word processing format, after all.

True enough. Here again you have alternatives, though. You can send “Rich Text Format” files (extension of .rtf) instead – all word processors can read them. You can send Adobe Acrobat files instead, if you like – the Acrobat reader is widely available.

Or, start using HTML as your standard document storage format. You lose some formatting ability you rarely use in the first place. You gain plenty:

You can exchange documents with the rest of the known universe – everyone can view them using any Web browser.

You can manage all company documents using inexpensive “Intranet” technology. It won’t be hard to let users publish their own documents on your internal Web servers as easily as you may use shared directories now.

You’ll be able to choose from dozens of HTML-authoring tools, letting you buy in a highly competitive marketplace – always good for the corporate checkbook.

Microsoft certainly hasn’t acted in the best interests of its customers. It doesn’t have to – it may choose to as a marketing tactic, but it has no obligation to do so.

Don’t like it? Take your business elsewhere. That’s the nature of a capitalist economy, and the requirement for maintaining one.