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Micro-productivity: man vs. machine, divergence vs. convergence

According to a McKinsey & Company study of US economic activity, "Raising the productivity of employees whose jobs can't be automated is the next big performance challenge."

Tim Leberecht
Tim Leberecht is Frog Design's chief marketing officer. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET.
Tim Leberecht
3 min read
Marginal Revolution

According to a McKinsey & Company study of US economic activity, "Raising the productivity of employees whose jobs can't be automated is the next big performance challenge." The study argues that "as more companies come to specialize in core activities and outsource the rest, they have greater need for workers who can interact with co-workers, partners, and vendors," supported by highly personalized organizing and communication tools. 40 percent of labor activity, says McKinsey, comes not from making things or from traditional transactions but from what the consultancy calls the "Interaction Economy," which it defines as the "searching, coordinating, and monitoring required to exchange goods or services." This interaction economy emphasizes collaboration, social intelligence, tacit knowledge, and ambiguity, as much as it values workers' ability to make individual decisions quickly and organize tasks and time efficiently -- in a nutshell: it puts a much stronger focus on the non-formalized, individual productivity or "micro-productivity" of employees. McKinsey says that this area of productivity involves the highest-priced labor of the most valued knowledge workers and yet remains the hardest to measure and manage.

It is also the least commoditized part of the economy, for a good reason: it would be counter-productive to decrease the level of entrepreneurial freedom at the micro-level by trying to implement streamlined de rigueur organizing tools. More companies are starting to realize that it might be a better alternative to provide a vast array of tools and leave it up to the workers to tailor them creatively to their specific needs - the human being and not the application as the meta-organizer. "You're not trying to automate the task a human does; you're trying to complement what the human is doing," says James M. Manyika, a senior partner at McKinsey, who co-authored the study, in a recent New York Times article about personal organizing tools and company mash-ups. Micro-productivity applications such as Scrybe or 37 Signals may indeed lead to more productivity gains than big companywide applications such as enterprise resource planning or arcane knowledge management portals, which because of their rigidity too often limit innovation and creativity. And BusinessWeek reports that E*Trade, Siemens, JDS Uniphase, Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline, and Coldwell Banker Commercial are all using enterprise mashups in some capacity. Just as personal computers released the gridlock of corporate information to employees, personal organizers and mash-ups are empowering the individual worker to effectively engage in the soft yet critical tasks of collaboration, organizing, communications, and interaction -- and let them choose themselves how to best accomplish that.

This is an interesting premise as this new "tacit technology" combines seemingly antagonistic convergent and divergent elements (as so many innovations do these days). The demand for a meta-organizer which combines myriad schedules and calendar applications is contrasted by the demand for personalized and individualistic organizing options that are divergent because they consider the differences in the user's preferences." David Weinberger, author of the book "Everything is Miscellaneous," argues: "What we need is the ability to associate the people and the times and the places of our lives with the broad messy context of our lives." He adds that these new productivity tools are "an early but important step toward giving individuals at companies a better way to manage their increasingly complicated existence."

The recognition of micro-productivity is part of a broader trend -- the renaissance of a human-centered economy that introduces new organizational and business models to re-cast the old Man vs. Machine story. Consumers want it real and human -- post-industrial, excellent, unique, provocative, sentimental, opinionated, boutique, artisan, (eco-) epicurean, handcrafted, hand-wrought, warm, attentive, devoted. And companies are getting it. From user-centered design (Apple, Cisco, HP, etc.), user-generated content (Blogs, Wikis, Slideshare, Flickr, Facebook, YouTube, MySpace, Twitter, etc.) to human-powered search (ChaCha, Mahalo), crowdsourcing, GeekSquad (call 1-800-GEEK-SQUAD - of all places, a technology company - and hear how the use of a real human voice and humorous options helps render the company real), to the new social and green responsibilities of the "high-purpose company," and a new quest for "authenticity" -- the human is, once again, back at the center of attention and the economic value chain.