Benchmarking Productivity

By Allan Alter Print this article Print

Want your workforce to get more done? Personal productivity guru David Allen says CIOs should focus more on individual accountability and personal behavior, and less on technology.

Benchmarking Productivity

Imagine you are the CIO of a global company. The CEO has just called you in and said, "I don't want you to be just the CIO, I want you to be the chief productivity officer." What do you do in your first year on the job?

The first thing I'd do—I'd fire right back at the CEO and say, "Thank you, what a great opportunity! How will you know when I've done a good job?" What I do next depends on the CEO's answer. Productivity could mean a lot of things to the CEO. It could be you've stopped staff turnover.

It could be the bottom line, the equation between resources required and profitability gained. From my perspective—and it's somewhat limited because I've been more focused on the human equation and not Lean Manufacturing, TQM [Total Quality Management] and Six Sigma—if you want to get things done, there are several questions you have to answer. What does "done" mean? What does "doing" look like, and where does it happen? The late Peter Drucker said, "The biggest challenge all knowledge workers have is to define their work." Technology doesn't do that.

If the CEO said, "We need to increase worker productivity," I would say, "Great! Let's start with all the individuals in the organization to make sure there are no leaks in their own personal systems," because what you don't want to do is add leaky ships to a leaky fleet. That's not going to help. It could be that everybody is as efficient as they can be, in which case, if things are falling through the cracks, you're understaffed. But the truth is, most people have huge improvement opportunities just in terms of their own focus, personal systems and behaviors.

Realistically, what can a CIO do to change personal behavior on a mass scale?

You can start to impact a culture when you start to deliver a message about productivity and create productive behaviors. Those two questions—what's the outcome and what's the action step—are ultimately the knowledge-work thinking process. What are we trying to accomplish in this meeting? By what time? When you end the discussion, what's the next action, and who's going to do it? If an organization starts to ask those questions with that kind of rigor, I guarantee it will increase productivity. Again, the computer doesn't do that for you.

How can work groups improve personal productivity so members can work more effectively together?

First of all, they need to clarify ownership. Who owns the output of that work group? That's often the problem with collaboration and collaborative project management software. All the Web 2.0 kind of stuff assumes that somebody is minding the store. But if nobody owns this thing, then you never know how much detail you need to track; no one has clout to ensure that everybody keeps to the protocols of inputting all that stuff. Once someone says, "I have this project," then that person can say, "Here are the kinds of tools I want to use," and set them up to track deliverables and accountability.

Technology cannot take into consideration all the subtleties of collaboration. There's a basic communication principle that says the more complex and sophisticated the issue, the broader the bandwidth required. In other words, if you're trying to renegotiate 14 big projects and the CEO just threw you another one, you need to understand what all these people have on their plates and how the new project shifts priorities, almost on an hour-by-hour basis. That requires huge amounts of awareness, skill and ownership. The technology doesn't help with that; you still must have somebody responsible to manage things with that kind of complexity. The biggest issue with collaboration technology is that people tend to make it overly complex, thinking it's going to make work simpler, but the truth is, you have to make technology as simple as possible with as few moving parts as you can get by with, in order to leave lots of room for flexibility as things change.

My own CIO has a coffee shop meeting with the tech team once a week. Even though we have good collaborative tracking in terms of the projects, and my CIO has designed his own customized, shared database inside Lotus Notes so everybody can keep track of what projects are out there and who's doing what, they still have to have that face-to-face meeting.

This article was originally published on 2007-05-15
Executive Editor

Allan Alter has been a specialist on information technology management, strategy and leadership for many years. Most recently, he was editor-in-chief and the director of new content development for the MIT Sloan Management Review. He has been a columnist and department editor at Computerworld, where he won three awards from the American Society of Business Press Editors. Previously he was a special projects editor, senior editor and senior writer for CIO magazine. Earlier, Alter was an associate editor for Mass High Tech. He has edited two books: The Squandered Computer: Evaluating the Business Alignment of Business Technologies and Redesigning the Firm.

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