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Economy

Why The Digital Revolution Hasn't Boosted Productivity

Information technology was supposed to make everything move faster. We need to rethink the way we use our digital tools to serve our real needs.

 “You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics...'
“You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics..."
Jean-Marc Vittori

PARIS — Is that technology's fault? New technology is supposed to bring immense progress. In particular, production is supposed to become more efficient, even to the point of killing job opportunities. But in reality, we see the opposite. Europe's work productivity increased less than one percent in the last two decades, and is just starting to accelerate in the United States. On both sides of the Atlantic, companies struggle to recruit employees. On top of this, the big Internet companies are being called into question.

This productivity paradox isn't new. In criticizing a book on the future and state of industry, the Nobel laureate economist Robert Solow wrote in 1987 that "You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics." Since then, the mystery has thickened further. Economists assert that the easy gains in productivity are already behind us, but others will come, and some that are here but are invisible because of poor statistics. Is it enough just to visit an office to understand what's happening?

Let's take the author's Les Echos office life to illustrate this issue. In the morning, he enters the elevator, and presses the button of the floor that he wants to go to. This means fewer interactions with colleagues who may work on different floors, the short moments in which they may exchange valuable information.

This is the beginning of a long process. The employee then needs a badge to enter the floors: a badge that he has to look for, that he may lose, forget about, or break. On some occasions, he needs a badge to enter his own office as well, with a lock that may break. In that case, he has to leave for different floors of the office in search for a technician. Before the digital age, it was too complicated to lock everything.

The light switch has been replaced with a tablet.

Once he reaches the office, the progress continues. The light switch has been replaced with a tablet that allows him to adjust the room's brightness, the air conditioning and the blinds. The lights switch on automatically. But the neon above the office has made the keyboard too bright. He then needs to go to the tablet and choose on the screen the lamp in question, and then its light switch.

None of this lasts forever. — Rami Al-zayat

The tablet must also work! For months, it has disconnected every two hours. The writer in question must get up, turn it on again, reconnect it to the network (with his glasses, since the icons are too small). Five times a day, this adds up to 15 minutes lost.

Let us consider three other examples that one sees in many work offices. First, the hundreds of emails everyday that one must comb through. Then, the unreliable landline. Calls cut unexpectedly, and the only dependable thing is the message asking for the quality of the call when there was no problem. Lastly, let's consider the phrase "capture of available brain time," coined by Patrick Le Lay, former chief of French television network TF1. While skimming the newspapers, one can find out quickly who loves shoes, who loves TV shows or for other topics unrelated to his or her expertise.

None of this lasts forever. Yet it will probably require an entire generation to pass before the dust settles on the digital revolution. As the writers Stephen Cohen and John Zysman note: the impact technology has on productivity "does not depend on the possibilities offered by technology but the ability to use them effectively."

There are two other factors that slow productivity, in the press as elsewhere. The first is the "digital duality," if we were to use the words of the four McKinsey consultants Jacques Bughin, Tanguy Catlin, Martin Hirt, and Paul Willmott. Companies "need to digitize their existing activities and innovate with new models."

Omnichannel strategy is as inevitable as it is expensive.

Les Echos is not only a print newspaper but also a digital source with texts, podcasts, and videos. Banks and merchants create new services, invest heavily in technology and keep their offices and stores. In other words, they spend a lot of money for a turnover that is barely growing. So-called "omnichannel" strategy is as inevitable as it is expensive.

The second factor slowing productivity is workflow organization, far from taking advantage of the scale, rapidity and flexibility allowed by digital tools. "The emergence of new technology that is supposed to increase productivity, elicits in contrast challenges with automating complex functions," says Yves Morieux, consultant from BCG. "We haven't always found the organizational structure that allows us to reap the profits of the technological revolution in information and communication."

With the need to adapt human resources, processes, and the proliferation of business models and organizations, it will take a lot of time for digitalization in the workplace to become truly productive. Think how long it took for us to really begin to profit from the steam engine and electricity.

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