The productivity argument

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Another one of the perennial surveys comes out in Personnel Today to announce how much productivity is costing UK businesses.  And this one proclaims that training is the answer.

£70bn: the cost of poor productivity

UK employers have been urged to radically overhaul their training processes after it emerged that poor productivity cost them £70bn last year.

I have a low tolerance for these things – the basic premise seems flawed to me, and the solution is too often a conveniently simple one.  (Although it may be difficult to implement, requiring the help of a consultancy much like the one announcing the survey.)

I much preferred the more relevant and intelligent discussion on the topic a while ago on BBC Radio 4’s In Business programme (you can listen to the programme in full via the page).  Not only did it question the measurement of productivity, but avoided pat answers to the problem.  If it were as simple as training, would UK businesses not have addressed it – or do they not care enough?

It strikes me that, if you accept there is an issue with productivity (and I’m not yet convinced), then it’s one of those issues that falls into the Complex domain of the excellent Cynefin framework (excellent article here).

That means that it’s not something that can analysed and solved, even by experts and big thinkers.  Instead, it’s something that is affected by many different elements – and the exact combination of which pieces will change with the context and the environment.  But that’s a more difficult story to tell – and a less snappy headline.

It reminds me of a delegate at an email management conference I chaired last year, who gave chapter and verse on how much money spam and viruses cost each business, but multiplying this factor with that, including the other and generally rounding up.  It’s a spurious argument – the process of thinking often involves time doing something entirely different – like mindlessly deleting junk emails or washing up.

Of course, if you really want high productivity, employ robots.  And define processes so tightly that customers don’t figure.  And don’t look for innovation, or enthusiasm, or engagement – or any of the other elements that modern business depends on to survive…

Posted by Tony Quinlan

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