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Why We Seem To Be Talking More And Working Less—The Nature Of Work Has Changed

2016 March 20
by Greg Satell

Are communication technologies like Slack, Yammer and Skype actually helping us, or just getting in the way? Certainly, they have made it easier to communicate, share information and collaborate with colleagues, but what if all that extra communication is actually preventing us from getting important work done?

In a recent article in Harvard Business Review, Bain & Co. partner Michael Mankins estimates that while a typical executive in the 1970’s might have received 1,000 messages a year, that number has skyrocketed to more than 30,000 today and argues that we may “have reached the point of diminishing returns.”

I think just about everyone can see his point. Today, the amount of meetings, emails and IM’s we receive can seem overwhelming and it’s increasingly hard to find uninterrupted quiet time to focus and concentrate. However, the nature of work has changed. The real reason that we communicate more is because, today, we need to collaborate more to be effective.

Today, Machines Do A Lot Of The Work For Us

First, consider how different work was 20 years ago, when Microsoft had just released Windows 95 and few executives regularly used programs like Word, Excel and PowerPoint. We largely communicated by phone and memos typed up by secretaries. Data analysis was something you did with a pencil, paper and a desk calculator.

Now consider how Mankins performed the study he described in the article. He writes, “My colleagues at Bain and I have studied these effects using people analytics and data mining tools.” It’s safe to assume that all that data was collected and analyzed electronically and shared instantly with the press of a button.

It’s also safe to assume that he and his colleagues spent quite a bit of time discussing what the results of all that analysis meant. 20 years ago, they would have had to set up a meeting or a phone call when they were all free, but today, they can toss around ideas between meetings, in airport lounges or even while waiting for an elevator.

As Mankins himself wrote in an earlier article, “Today, an algorithm can assemble many more facts about the accounts than any human being could easily process.” The truth is that we’re increasingly collaborating with machines to get cognitive work done and so it shouldn’t be surprising that we’re taking more time to discuss that work with each other.

We’re Tackling Problems That Are Much More Complex

Another thing to take into account is that the work we do today is far more complex. Would Mankins have even undertaken his study without the “people analytics and data mining tools” made available to him today? Possibly, but it would have been significantly more onerous.

It’s also important to note that the trend toward greater communication is not just visible in industry, but in academia as well, where we can assume that researchers have more options to work quietly and without interruption. Yet they are increasingly choosing to work in teams and those teams outperform solo performers.

The journal Nature recently noted that the average scientific paper today has four times as many authors as one did in 1950 and the work they are doing is far more interdisciplinary and done at greater distances than in the past. It’s hard to see how any of that could happen without the improved communication technologies we enjoy today.

Clearly, technology is enabling us to tackle problems we wouldn’t have dreamed of addressing a generation ago. To work on these challenges, we are increasingly collaborating in teams and our work has become more social and less cognitive.

The Value Of Sharing Information

In the past, communication was often just chit chat. Valuable information was locked away in file cabinets and, if we could find it, we would have to make a hard copy in order to share it with anyone else. Yet today, even teenager with a smartphone has more access to information than a highly trained specialist a generation ago.

For a typical executive, the effect has been even greater. The new technologies that make up the Internet of Things collect information automatically from a vast array of sensors embedded in just about anything you can think of. This data, in turn, is analyzed through the use of other technologies, like Hadoop and Spark, to help us make sense of it.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that we’re discussing all of the information we now have access to. We can glean new insights, share them with others and they can reply with insights of their own. The result of this collaboration is often even more collaboration, as we pull people in with a greater diversity of experience and expertise to get their take.

That doesn’t seem like wasted time to me. The truth is that nature of work is changing. The office is no longer a place where we access information—today, we can do that anytime, anyplace—but rather a place where we access people. It’s where we can meet face-to-face, communicate non-verbally as well as verbally, build stronger working relationships and collaborate more effectively.

Collaboration Is The New Competitive Advantage

To be fair to Mr. Mankins, his greater point—and the subject of much of his other writing—is that we should put more thought into how we adopt and use our newfound communication assets. Surely, we all spend time attending meetings and conference calls, reading and responding to messages that could be used more productively. That’s frustrating.

However—and this is a crucial point—we don’t know those interactions will be fruitless until we actually have them. While it’s easy to remember the frustration of having our time wasted, it is not much harder to recall times when we have come across a random thread of information that we were able to capitalize on by sharing with colleagues.

It is also those chance encounters that often lead to bigger things, precisely because we are able to share them, get diverse viewpoints and mobilize the efforts of others. Increasingly, we live in a social economy with collaboration at its center. It is no longer just efficiency, but agility and interoperability that makes firms successful.

So, while I take Mankins’ point about the potential for new communication technologies to unproductively monopolize our time, we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Yes, the cacophony of the constant barrage of communication can seem distracting at times, but it can also open up new worlds of opportunity. That is, if we are paying attention.

– Greg

6 Responses leave one →
  1. March 22, 2016

    Times are definitely changing. Somehow technology has brought us closer together while pushing us farther apart. I prefer to live in the times of Windows 95.

  2. Robert Lewis permalink
    March 23, 2016

    I tend to agree with Dan,

    Digging around in tons of new data, trying to identify problems, tends to create two negative work syndromes we are seeing:

    1. Thousands of “solutions” looking for problems that are comparatively unimportant or may not actually exist.
    2. Decline of individual imagination, insight, courage to make decisions outside the confines of past knowledge, (which all data
    essentially is.)*

    * Peter Drucker foresaw this 60 odd years ago when he wrote:

    “The problem is rather that the important and relevant outside events are often qualitative and not capable of quantification. They are not yet ‘facts.’ A fact, after all, is an event that somebody has defined, has classified and, above all, has endowed with relevance … The danger is that executives will become contemptuous of information and stimulus that cannot be reduced to computer logic and computer language. Executives may become blind to everything that is perception, i.e. event, rather than fact, i.e. after the event. The tremendous amount of computer information may thus shut out access to reality.”

  3. March 23, 2016

    I see what you’re saying, and the economist Robert Gordon has an important new book out expanding on this argument (which I’ll post an article about on Sunday). However, I think if you look at the innovation going on, especially in genomics, nanotechnology and robotics, it’s hard not to get the feeling that things are accelerating instead of slowing down.

    Also, I would argue with the notion that data is only about the past. When a self-driving car is able to process information about its surroundings, or doctors are able to sequence DNA in order to select the right therapy for the right cancer or designer of new solar panels are able to process the millions of variables needed to increase efficiency, new possibilities open up.

    – Greg

  4. Kuldip Singh permalink
    March 27, 2016

    Hello Greg,

    It is due to technology that we exchange messages from time to time. Otherwise, I might never have known or read your valuable insights!

  5. Kuldip Singh permalink
    March 27, 2016

    Hello Greg,

    It is due to technology that we exchange messages from time to time. Otherwise, I might never have known or read your valuable insights!

  6. March 27, 2016

    Good point:-)

    – Greg

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