Showing posts with label Productivity. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Productivity. Show all posts

J'analyse donc je suis

Writing a letter in prison, Bertrand Russell wrote, "No one has the least idea how much I get into a day". Stephen Wolfram, in some ways his latter day intellectual heir, has the answer: Personal Analytics.

He has logged every single keystroke for 30 years and every morning gets an email summary of all his activity – including emails. Let's not focus on the circular analytical trail there yet. That tells him how productive he has been the previous day. To doubt Mr Wolfram’s genius is to call one’s own semblance of an intelligence into question. But let’s ask the fundamental question anyway. Does everyone need or want or stand to gain from his brand of analytics? Carefully perusing through smartly visualized reports of one’s digital activity is arguably only productive for someone who is planning to commercialize and sell that sort of analysis to the masses, as he is. To everyone else, it is one more thing to do they got by without just fine until someone invented it for sale and profit. At that personal level at which he intends to track it, what is productivity?

Why was I not as productive yesterday as the same day last week? Because on my way to work, I paused in the park as I caught a whiff of the most delightful scent on the air, and on following it, espied a glorious bloom of rose bush (a literal truth). Why was I less productive in the month of May 2011 than in May 2010? Because in 2011, my girlfriend left me, whereas in 2010 we were just back from a very happy holiday. I remember both events vividly. Why was I apparently shirking work in August 2000? Simply cannot remember. And should I? Those that write journals or personal blogs can quickly check. Others do not write journals for various reasons. It might entertain them to look for unexplained patterns in digital data and wonder some day when they have nothing better to do and they have just been through old photos. But do we all need to dissect and analyse every single blip in the data, constantly?
Omar Khayyam Profile
Bust of Omar Khayyam
Photo by Muhammad Mahdi Karim
From WikiMedia Commons
If I scrutinised my productivity so thoroughly every morning I expect two things: A) I expect to deliver ideas equivalent to being the Omar Khayyam of my time. B) I expect I will see the daily analytical report as a waste of the time that I might better spend working on whatever makes me that great. If I take a break to pause and smell roses, I would rest in peace knowing that every such single instance over the course of my life was well considered and justified at least in that moment, regardless of whether I remember for all time to come. If I do not remember, I shall trust my judgement in the past and also allow for it to evolve in a way that my present disagrees with the past but without regrets. Thanks for the software then, Mr Wolfram, but I think I will spend the cash otherwise. A book on Indo-persian algebra, perhaps.

And there's the connect - the kind that this blog scouts for. It is a weak but direct link to a couple of recurrent themes - Productivity and Work-Life Balance. I've said before: any talk of productivity is meaningless without spelling out the values being produced. Even the simple case of a sensory experience of natural scents involves multiple values. In the moment, I value that experience very highly indeed, and there is very little the world offers that I would trade it for. In general, I value the memory of such simple pure pleasures from the countless occasions in the past. I also value the conceited knowledge that I seem to have the increasingly rare appreciation for these self-anointed values! I could go on, but you get the idea. If ever in the future they make an app for a wearable devide that somehow records the metadata for that experience, or fate forbid, attempts to assess the quality of the scent of the particular rose, I would elect to ignore it. (You know where I stand on this. I brought it up with that story of the schoolchildren scaling tall ladders en route to a school set in pristine wilderness.)

Analysing 'personal' productivity means scrutinizing either what one produces 'for' oneself or 'out of' oneself. Surely, even for the self-employed few, that includes many things that in no way help bring in an income? Whichever gender, we certainly cannot 'have it all'. It comes down to setting one's priorities early on and keeping an interal tab on how we fare. When it is time to take stock, judge leniently. After all, we did not rely on an app logging everything and presenting it to us with the morning coffee. And may that email that I eagerly read before leaving for work be from a friend or colleague in another time zone. For I can handle any number of emails from friends - and colleagues, if the request is within a very broad reading of my job description. (I'm looking at you. Yeah, you know who you are!) Just as long as it is not a bot that sent me an email about my email traffic.

Decades after that prison stint, Russell came to write, "A great deal of work has come upon me, neglect of some of which might jeopardise the continuation of the human race”. Now there's a candidate for it!

Productivity and Value

(First published at the UNU MERIT blog on 19 September 2012.)

At one of our regular Thursday seminars (at UNU MERIT) earlier this year, the speaker repeated what we have often heard more casually: the productivity of an academic worker goes down when assigned administrative tasks; administration is not productive work.

The remark passes for a platitude, seldom questioned, and yet, if one dispenses with prejudiced frames for a moment and gives it a second deliberate thought, it should seem a paradox. Administration is not productive work? Why ever not? The answer may well be obvious, but that second thought doesn’t hurt. It lies in the definition of what is being produced. The seminar speaker implied an assumption. That particular piece of research was concerned with producing new knowledge - publishing. Naturally, administration of taught programs adds little to research output and the assumption is quite valid.

If we look at academia more broadly, however, the product can be variously defined. Here at our institute, we offer graduate programs. That is the other product, apart from research. Arguments about the concatenation of appropriate metrics for the combined product stream are irrelevant here. If we were to acknowledge that the taught part of our product catalogue is a ‘well-administered graduate program’, suddenly the very definition of the product deems good administration a productive activity.

I’m not trying to make a point exclusively about what we value in academia, although the above is hardly a trivial point. There is a larger discussion. Assessing productivity has much to do with how products are defined. And defining products has to do with value propositions.

Take cars. (What else? Indeed, nothing is more symbolic of the old economic paradigm. But this is to connect to words of a promising young scientist I have closely followed for a while. He uses the example of cars. And it ties in nicely with two previous posts on this blog.) You leave home every day at 0830, arrive at office 0850 and park your car. Your neighbour leaves at 0910, arrives 0925, and parks. Your colleague has a lunch appointment at a hotel near your house, leaves 1225, arrives 1245, parks. All the cars parked for hours do not provide anyone with any value. Usually, they are just taking up precious space, arguably a drain on the economy if anything.

In a more wired world, where sensors at home and office and in phones and vehicles could coordinate and synchronise it all for us beautifully, we could share cars. Fewer cars would need to be produced to give equivalent or greater value. Why then be in the business of selling cars? Why not be in the business of selling person-kilometres? At my old institute (IIIEE at Lund University), we were accustomed to asking questions of that sort. At my current institute (UNU at Maastricht), would we not want to recalibrate the study of productivity?

We are nearly there - a world where less is more, a world with a more sustainable economic engine. We ought to redefine value propositions, products, productivity, and yes, our term for the creation of new value - innovation.