Productivity and Achieving Business Goals: They could be apples and oranges

I think most of us would all agree that if you've achieved your business mission or vision, you've probably produced a high-level of productivity. But is the opposite true? Does a high level of productivity automatically translate into business success? The simple answer is no.

What's the difference and why is this a critical distinction for your organization's success? This is the topic of this month's newsletter.

Take this example from a Higher Education institution. Imagine a new and improved Grant Submission tool has been identified to help faculty secure research dollars. The current system is a conglomerate of Word, Excel, emails and faxes going back and forth between
administrative offices and departments.

The proposed technology appears to streamline the collection of data into one coherent set of screens and reports. The majority of faculty are loosely aware how the new system will work and have been given an overview of the benefits that this new system will bring. Ultimately the unspoken expectation by all is that it will support the institutions mission. The software gets installed and is ready to use.

The devil's in the details

On paper, everything looks great. That is, until people actually start using it.

Unbeknownst to faculty, the data entry requirements are greater than expected and the majority of the work ends up falling on their research assistants. It doesn't take long for a growing dissatisfaction to take hold.

What appeared to be a tool to help faculty meet the institutions mission of world-class research, has instead taken their key resources and turned them into data-entry clerks.

Sold a vision but delivered a tool

Software is all about productivity, i.e., simplifying, streamlining, or automating some series of tasks. Software can be a tremendous productivity solution, minus one small caveat — human involvement and the lack of understanding how it impacts people and processes.

Take email for example. The original promise of email was how we would be able to spend more time at home or on the beach, getting more done with less effort or time. (Can we all agree we're not there?)

Software is a linear, problem-solving solution that leads to what we think we want, i.e. "productivity". Unfortunately, productivity is not what we're truly striving for. It's achieving the mission or goals of the organization that is what we're looking for. Achieving vision may involve software, but the real challenge is in understanding and asking broader, mission-driven questions.

Back to our story

Frustrated with the new grant submission tool, a senior faculty member complains directly to the president. What used to be a kluge yet workable set of tasks now has research assistants spending the majority of their time manipulating data-entry screens. To make matters worse, faculty are expected to learn the system themselves to get reports about their grants. This is not what they signed on for and a minor revolt ensues by a few influential teaching fellows.

The unintended consequence of this "improvement project" is that it unfolded as a linear, software solution, versus a means to genuinely support the mission of the institution. In their haste to streamline and simplify work (remember email), the sponsors of the project lost sight of the larger goal; to support faculty in publishing well respected research and attracting the best graduate students. Although well-intentioned, the tools actually caused a greater sense of lost productivity and increased frustration.

Don't get me wrong

It's not that these software tools are bad or don't have a place in helping achieve organizational goals. It's that we don't evaluate them through the lens of meeting these larger questions.

More often than not, productivity projects lose their true value somewhere in the hundreds of pages of technical specs that drive these efforts.

What's the alternative?

The alternative is to not underestimate how easy it is to lose sight of the vision while getting caught up in believing the software alone will solve the problem.

Starting from original conception, through vendor sales, design and finally execution, broader questions about people and processes will help uncover where the real opportunity and pitfalls lie.

Remember, as a pure technology project, the questions are primarily limited to:

  • Can the software perform the following function?
  • How much does it cost?

Focused on mission, the question is:

  • What does business success look like and how will technology help us to realize these goals?

Asking the latter question may yield a completely different set of choices. Your team may even discover that the full suite of "productivity" solutions (i.e. — the software you paid for but didn't install yet) may inadvertently cause a greater sense of confusion and ineffectiveness.

Don't assume technology will keep you moving in the right direction. You may just find yourself and your people working harder but further away from the real value you were looking for.

Achieving Vision

"Vision without action is a dream. Action without vision is simply passing the time. Action with vision is making a positive difference."

— Joel Barker
Independent Scholar and Futurist