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Tortoise Productivity


Remember the story of the tortoise and the hare? While the hare raced out ahead with high speed the tortoise slowly plodded towards the finish line, always moving forward as opposed to the hare which moved with sporadic bursts of speed.

I visited a doctor the other day and was intrigued to see no computers, no credit card machines and no sign of computerization anywhere in his office. An old cash register (manually driven with a crank handle) recorded my transaction. All my details including my invoice were written on pieces of paper.

Old fashioned you may think, but not necessarily less efficient. How many times have you been to a shop where you were held up because the computers weren't working. It happened to me the other day in Johannesburg. A petrol garages convenience shop must surely rate up there with the ultimate in convenience and efficiency?

Not this time, the computerized cash registers broke down leaving a growing queue of disgruntled customers without much convenience at all. The items they were holding only had barcodes, no prices, so without the scanner and computer, the staff didn't know how much to charge. There was no backup for the computers because, well, "They always work", I was told.

A recent article in Fortune magazine questioned why productivity gains in the United States dropped from a postwar 3.4% to a paltry 1.2% between 1979 and 1994, a time when computers were increasingly introduced into the business environment. Although the article failed to discover a direct correlation between computers and productivity it did mention many casual observations about computers and productivity.

One such observation, which I can make, from my experience in large South Africa corporations, is that computers add as many distractions as they add functionality. Games is just one topic that finds itself on the agendas of IS department meetings time and again.

Some companies see them as learning tools for staff to get accustomed with the use of the mouse and Windows while others ban them outright as a pure waste of time. If one goes with the former argument, one must at least recognize that games played during office time diminish the added productivity that a computer brings in the first place.

The Internet of course adds a whole new dimension to corporate policies on computers and their productivity. We run a couple of web sites that are purely entertainment based, nothing serious and nothing interesting to business people during business hours. Or that's what we thought. Browsing through the log files however tells a completely different story. The sites are accessed mostly during business hours. In fact the graph resembles a traffic pattern into and out of the CBD on workdays. Weekends, when people focus on entertainment - not much activity at all.

Installing new software, new releases and upgrades of existing software is another area where productivity plummets in the name of "hopefully" better future productivity. Perhaps this is appropriate in an age where we rate companies today on what they will earn in the future. We essentially allow our productivity to suffer today in the hope that it will be better tomorrow with newer, better software.

Where does it stop? I fear that in some cases we are the hares. Constantly trying to gear ourselves to go faster without actually taking a step forward today. Doing this we play right into the hands of the tortoise. Slowly plodding away at a steady speed with no help from computers, I fear he might beat the hare who is rushing to install that new kernel update, that 4.04 release of the web browser and that new driver that makes the computer run quicker. Those tools will be in place tomorrow while the tortoise takes a few steps unaided by computers today.