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Is Technology Wasting Your Time?

| April 5, 2016

by Jim Bruce

Got your attention, didn’t I? 
In a recent HBR blog post, Bain & Company’s Michael Mankins answers with a strong very likely.
Twenty years ago, new technologies like email and teleconferencing were key drivers in dramatically increasing productivity.  Information flowed faster, collaboration was easier.  However, by 2007 year-to-year growth in productivity was on the decline.  Yet, today, a decade later, organizations continue to invest in new technology for white-collar workers.  And, increases in benefits are no longer visible.
Why might this be true?  To begin to understand, we need to go back to Bob Metcalf’s postulate that the value of a network increases with the square of the number of network users.  (Metcalf is an early internet giant and co-inventor, with David Boggs, of the Ethernet.)  As an example, consider a world with only one cellphone – very little value (assuming no connection to landlines);  you might choose just to use if as a paperweight.  Two cellphones, more value, but not much as you can only connect with one other person.  A million cellphones, you can connect with any one of 999,999 others with cellphones.  Lots of value. 
The downside of this is that as the number of possible interactions increases, so does the time required to process all of them.  And, of course, there is the potential of even more value – a positive – and increased time to process the interactions – a negative – every time you add a function — not just talk, but email, txting, Facebook, Twitter, and the list goes on and on.
Mankins’ interest is the impact of all these interactions on the workplace.  He estimates that 30 years ago a manager might have received an average of 20 “pink slips” per day.  (A “pink slip” refers to the color of the message pads on which a manager’s assistant wrote notes about incoming telephone calls that the manager was unable to take.)  And, that’s about the number I received each day when I first became CIO at MIT. 
Today, with the advent of voice mail and other applications like email, IM, Twitter, etc. the number of pink slips has gone to essentially zero and the number of messages has grown significantly.  Estimates of several hundred messages per day per manager are common, each requiring some level of interaction, and therefore some amount of time, to handle.
Mankins’ research has also shown that the advent of on-line calendars and the ease of scheduling meetings with multiple participants has resulted in more meetings, each with more participants.  These observations led Mankins and his colleagues at Bain to study these effects on how people in organizations spend their time.  Here’s some of what they found:

· 15% of an organization’s collective time over all employees is spent in meetings.
· A typical mid-level manager, who works 47 hours per week, spends 21 hours in meetings (involving at least three others).
· This mid-level manager also spends 11 hours processing electronic communications of all forms.
· This leaves 15 hours for everything else.  Over half of this 15 hours is spent going to and from meetings, eating lunch, in bathroom breaks, and in small blocks of time, 20 minutes or less, not long enough to do substantive work.
· As a result only 6 ½ hours are available each week for uninterrupted time to work on the staff member’s own priorities.

That is not much time to meet the demands on today’s leaders.  And, these findings for how time is consumed seem low based on with what I hear from leaders today.  So, what gives?  Today, leaders work more than the 47 hours reported in the study and those hours mean less time with family and friends and for down time.
Other results from the study included the finding that interactions required to get work done have increased.  Sixty percent of the employees needed to consult with 10 others to get their work done.  This adds to the time required to complete a task.  For example, the study, also reported that it took 50% longer to hire a new staff member and 30% longer to complete IT projects.
Have we reached the point of diminishing returns?  Perhaps.  At a minimum, we have to begin to think about how we can more effectively use the time we have.  Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel, once wrote:  “Just as you would not permit a fellow employee to steal a piece of office equipment, you shouldn’t let anyone walk away with the time of his fellow managers.”
What Grove is saying is that we have to be much more intentional about how we consume our time.  Here are several suggestions:

· Separate the urgent, that which is critical to you and your organization’s success, from the merely important.  Focus first on the urgent.
· When that next meeting appears on your calendar, before you automatically accept it, ask for the agenda and determine what value you can contribute or receive by participating.  Does it contribute to your urgent priorities?  If not, excuse yourself from the meeting.
· When initiating a meeting, begin with an agenda having a clear objective.  Limit invitees to only those individuals essential to the meeting.  Provide materials in advance so that everyone arrives at the meeting prepared.  And, instill a practice of everyone arriving on time for meetings so that time is not wasted.
· Limit addressees on electronic communications to those who need the information for their work or who can provide information you need.  Don’t “cc all” on your responses unless there is real value in doing that. 
· …

As you work through your week, think carefully about how you are making use of the limited time you have.  It’s an expendable resource.  So, be intentional and focus time in meetings and communicating electronically on tasks that address your highest priorities.  If you do, I believe that you will find that you will have a more productive week.
Do make your week a great one.  .  .  .     jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
Michael Mankins, Is Technology Really Helping Us Get More Done?, Harvard Business Review.
Michael C. Mankins, Chris Brahm, Gregory Caimi, Your Scarcest Resource, Harvard Business Review.