If somebody asked you for a one-sentence definition of workplace productivity, there is a good chance you would probably reply that productivity is the quantity of value produced divided by the time or cost needed to do so.

It’s a serviceable enough definition, but there are good reasons for augmenting it with a twin-level approach to workplace productivity. Yes, the productivity of a company’s workers can be improved with additional training and through digital technology such as computers, email and spreadsheets, as well as through efforts to promote employee engagement and loyalty, including coaching. For knowledge workers especially, the gains facilitated by technology alone have been little short of revolutionary, enabling such employees to produce more in a day than they previously could have accomplished in an entire year.

These are tried and tested methods, yet there is another dimension to productivity that can easily be overlooked when the focus is confined to the productivity-per-employee level. Despite these tech-enabled and engagement-based enhancements, recent US government data found that during the tech boom, overall labour productivity grew by just 1 to 2 per cent despite the investment of trillions during this period. What’s going wrong?

Writing recently in the Harvard Business Review, people and organisational analytics expert Ryan Fuller puts his finger on the button: individual productivity, worthy goal as it is, isn’t the whole story.

Moreover, he feels that too much emphasis has been placed on it at the expense of what he calls
“enterprise productivity”, which is a very different beast.

As a little clue to what he means, I’ll leave you with an observation: knowledge work is typically undertaken by networks of people working together in constantly shifting contexts and with frequently changing goals. From an individual management perspective, each of these employees’ productivity may be excellent. However, this doesn’t automatically translate into organisation productivity – and it may amount to zero or even negative productivity.

These networks can be laden with multiple redundant actions that impede rather than enhance organisational productivity. We will take a look at this in Part Two of our series.

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