Over the past 25 years, the information revolution has boosted productivity by almost 70 percent in the United States. As a country, our manufacturing is producing more products with fewer hours than ever before.
Based on that, one would believe that these gains in productivity would eventually translate into a decrease in the workweek, as they did in the industrial and manufacturing revolutions of generations past.
But instead of technology becoming a time-saver that has freed workers from the office, everybody is working longer hours and working harder while they are there.
What is causing this productivity paradox?
With so many managers and professionals stuck at work, there is a growing consensus among business experts that the productivity paradox is a serious disorder in the organization of corporations.
Succeeding in today's economy requires lightning-fast reflexes and the ability to communicate and collaborate across the globe. Coming up with innovative ideas, products, and services means getting people across different divisions and different companies to work together. More and more value is created through networks. The companies with the best networks are winning the business war.
But the communication, coordination, and teamwork so essential for success these days are being superimposed on a corporate structure that has not yet changed itself.
Job cuts at lower levels did away many administrative positions. As a result, managers and professionals find their calendar filled with more mundane tasks. A small group creates an innovative idea for a new product, but it takes months to get approvals from management. Or corporate may send out orders to join a taskforce that is supposed to promote collaboration and innovation, but it ends up taking a big chunk of time.
No matter how many layers of management were supposed to be taken out in the great restructuring, there always seem to be more people on the e-mail distribution lists.
This is not an illusion. Despite years of cutting corporate bloat, managers are a much bigger share of the workforce than they were 15 years ago. Corporate America has added a new set of standards without fully dropping the old.
That helps explain why time pressures seem to be getting worse. Globalization and the Internet create great new opportunities, but they also ratchet up the intensity of competition and generate more work.
Especially with the existing corporate structure still hanging on tightly. Nobody wants to give up their territory or their control. Professionals are frequently still managed as if they were in factories, in organizations designed to keep everybody in place.
As a result, workers become frustrated. They work harder and longer, but frequently waste their time.
Make that lots of time. As many as 25 percent of executives at large companies say their communications -- voice mail, e-mail, and meetings -- are nearly or completely unmanageable. That's according to a new McKinsey survey of more than 7,800 managers around the world. The same survey shows that 40 percent of executives spend a full day per week on communications that are not valuable.
While the productivity paradox sounds disheartening, there is hope on the horizon.
To compete, successful corporations will have to make it easier and less time-consuming for their employees to collaborate. They will learn how to live with fewer time-sapping meetings and unnecessary feedback loops. The eventual result will be less frustration for knowledge workers.
Some in this direction can be seen as more savvy companies analyze their internal social networks and identify bottlenecks. Many businesses are providing more corporate support for both internal and external networks. They are beginning to build a new model in how to manage a company. The winners will be those who can handle more complexity.
There is great demand for new technologies that more efficiently foster collaboration, such as software that allows virtual meetings, where everyone doesn't need to be present simultaneously.
Another area marked for improvement is all the meetings and e-mails required to manage details of a collaboration or partnership. In some companies, part of the solution is to hire people for a new type of position devoted to facilitating or managing networks and relationships.
Adding new software and more people to reduce the cost of collaboration is great -- as long as it doesn't create even more work. To really ease the work overload -- and, not coincidentally, make corporations more nimble -- it's also essential to identify and eliminate unnecessary interactions.
Sometimes people need to remind themselves that there is an off switch -- and then use it.