Geek News: Do computers really improve productivity?

A year or two ago, I was reading the letters page in one of the major computer magazines.

Someone had been complaining that the magazine seemed to continually push expensive software upgrades and hardware purchases.

It seemed, this reader complained, that every time some fancy new toy came out, or a new processor was released, the magazine advised that everyone should buy it, all in the name of “efficiency.”

In the real world, the reader continued, businesses work on limited budgets, and can’t buy everything and upgrade continuously. Sometimes you have to make do with what you have.

The magazine’s editor responded in what I felt was an incredibly arrogant and rude manner. Buying the best computer equipment increases efficiency, he said, and he seemed to imply that computer equipment actually pays for itself. He concluded with an incredibly smarmy comment about how if the reader “can’t see how good equipment makes you more efficient,” maybe he shouldn’t be in business.

What really irritated me about this comment was that it came from someone who probably knew almost nothing about running a business or managing a budget. He was a salaried editor, not an entrepreneur!

I was reminded of this exchange yesterday when I read an article in Scientific American. “Taking Computer’s to Task” (Sci. Am., July 1997) examines the effect of computers and other types of high technology on industrial productivity; in other words, the way in which computers seem to have, in general, cost industry far more than the benefits they’ve provided.

The conclusion seems clear: With the exception of a few areas in which computers have clearly brought a dramatic benefit, in most areas computers do not boost employee productivity. And in many cases, they provide a huge productivity drain.

For example, the Gartner Group researched the cost of owning a PC, and came up with a figure of $13,000 a year. That included the cost of buying the machine — relatively little, just $1,000 a year. It included the cost of the network to which the computer would be connected, technical support and system administration.

But they found that the largest cost, $5,590, was “futzing.” You’ve seen people “futz” with their computers, I’m sure; futzing means time spent fooling around with computers unproductively.

A few years ago, I worked on a technical-writing team with a man who was obsessive about keeping his computer running efficiently. Every day, he’d defragment his computer’s hard drive, for instance … and sit and watch the screen as it defragmented. He spent an hour or two a day “tuning up” his computer one way or another.

In fact, he spent far more time making his computer work quickly than he could ever save by having a computer that worked quickly. This man was futzing.

Other researchers have found significant futzing costs, too. SBT Accounting Systems surveyed 6,000 office workers and found that the average worker futzed for 5.1 hours a week. In other words, 13 percent of the worker’s time was spent in unproductive fooling around with equipment that’s supposed to increase productivity. That’s somewhere around 250 hours a year.

To fight such problems, some companies now are removing the games from Windows, and even banning managers from using slide-presentation programs.

The Internet-software companies are about to hit industry with major new futzing opportunities. As if the Web didn’t provide enough opportunity to waste time, Netscape has just released NetCaster, a “push” system that displays information on the computer desktop automatically.

The next version of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer will have a similar system, called Active Desktop. Millions of workers now will save time by not reading the morning paper, but will instead read the news on their “desktops” during the work day.

There is, however, good news. It took 40 years for electric motors to boost industrial productivity in the United States, and that something similar may be happening with computers, that we may see a huge increase in productivity thanks to computer technology … just not right now, and probably not particularly soon.

Peter Kent is author of The Official Netscape JavaScript 1.2 Book (Ventana), which provides substantial futzing opportunities. You can reach him at geek@arundel.com.