IT productivity gains an elusive quarry

Apparently in Australia IT managers are being kept from more important work by email and phone messages, and spending so much time working out how to best install and upgrade their IT systems that any productivity gain made is cancelled out by the extra work it creates.

There's a story running on Computerworld Australia about IT's role in business productivity gains. Apparently in Australia IT managers are being kept from more important work by email and phone messages, and spending so much time working out how to best install and upgrade their IT systems that any productivity gain made is cancelled out by the extra work it creates. This would certainly help explain Ansett if you ask me.

Take my typical day, for instance. I'm supposed to be writing this column as well as doing something about the five stories on my list for today, and I should be calling the insurance company about a claim I put in as well as answering a couple of dozen emails I've been putting off, but instead I'm trying to work out who said "He doesn't make sense, I don't make sense ... together we make sense" in what movie because someone in the office (who shall remain nameless) has received an email with 100 movie quotes that are fiendish in their diversity. Work has ground to a halt.

Email alone has devoured most of mornings. The Aussie survey says the average employee spends more than 50 minutes a day just on email. Sure, it makes it easier to keep in touch with people, but frankly that's not always a good thing. I get press releases by email, you see, and opening them, sighing loudly that they're Word documents sent as attachments and deleting them takes up a good six seconds each. That's six seconds I'll never see again.

Then there's ICQ and MSN Messenger. IDGNet editor Kirstin Mills works from Dunedin, so we stay in touch during the day via ICQ. Now I'm not saying she wastes my time she does have the world's cutest puppy and his antics are to die for!

Or there's the internet itself. Each morning I check up to a dozen websites for news. Most of it is IT-related but there's always the odd tale of Anthrax, ground troops, netball or John Banks speeding on his jetski that catches my eye. I am a news magpie and the internet really helps with that.

Newsgroups and mailing lists also help eat through my day -- between the general and the specific, the technology-focused and the local, I spend probably an hour or more each morning just keeping tabs on them.

Here at IDG we also have an email group that contains everyone in the company, wherein we can discuss issues ranging from yoghurt consumption to the building lifts to visitor passes and the always important expense claims. This also takes time as those "yeah, me too" replies have to be carefully constructed so as to make full use of the medium.

It doesn't stop with the internet, either. Did I mention text messaging? I can often get up to eight or nine texts a day telling me about traffic problems in Pukekohe, which is useful, vital information that I don't care about.

Then there's phone tag, the game every journalist loves to play. We sit and watch and wait for the phone to ring and wonder whether we've waited a polite amount of time and whether we should call back yet or not. As a rule I try to wait a full minute before calling back. I find that helps create a rapport and sense of community with all the receptionists and assistants I talk to.

There's the ever popular "waiting for the page to download", though this tends to be less of a bother with a broadband connection. Add on top of that the number of times I get asked by websites to download the latest version of Flash (which I already have, by the way) and you build up to several weeks of my life that's gone for good.

I haven't even mentioned synchronising my data spread over various devices, and for good reason: I've given up trying to keep my phone, Palm, PC and company address books together. Let them do their own thing, I cry.

But when I think about it, we're not wasting time with most of these things. It's simply a different way of accounting for your time. Anyone who works with a spreadsheet should get down on their knees each and every day and offer thanks to the guy who wrote the first computer-based system, because in the old days running the numbers really meant running the numbers -- you'd be calculating each cell by hand. Dan Bricklin, the chap who came up with VisiCalc, claimed it was so important a tool that he didn't patent it (although at the time you couldn't patent software).

Sure, we spend time answering email and surfing the web. I wouldn't have it any other way.

Brislen is IDGNet’s reporter. Send email to Paul Brislen. Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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