The Productivity of Technology is in Jeopardy

What would happen if this artificial-intelligence based paradigm were to extend to all forms of knowledge work? Knowledge workers could use computers and intelligent networks running advanced problem solving algorithms to put better information at their fingertips. Help desk attendants would have access to intelligent software agents that can resolve issues based on questions by users.

Better yet would be data and information collection systems that end users could interact with directly. If a town’s name is longer than average, the application would be flexible enough to recognize that and self-adjust, even learning in the process. The same types of algorithms that are used by Google and others to adjust and personalize Web ads could be used to personalize user interfaces by various categorization schemes such as demographics, usage patterns, and work needs.

This also leverages the fact that consumers and system users increasingly prefer to do their own purchasing and other functions directly, without the involvement of intermediaries. The productivity improvements of extending the Amazon shopping paradigm to a vast array of economic and work-oriented functions are potentially huge. This leads to a second possibility for increasing IT productivity.

Giving Up Control

Companies and other organizations would do well to give as much flexibility and control as possible to consumers. This entails better software design, more advanced artificial intelligence, more ergonomic interfaces, superb systems integration and absolute ease of use. These technological advances would attract and retain more customers, and also reduce the need for skilled or semi-skilled workers to maintain systems and interact with customers.

The best example of this vision is, of course, how Apple has managed to create extremely powerful consumer applications that wonderfully integrate hardware, software, and intelligent functionality. Just look at Time Machine, the new backup utility in Mac OS X Leopard. You plug in the backup device (e.g., an external hard drive) and select it in a menu that pops up automatically. Voilà! You’ve set up your computer for home backup. If you need to access backed up information for whatever reason, you just click on the Time Machine icon on the desktop, and the screen changes to a depiction of the file finder application at various points in the past. Select the time point you want, select the file you want, and it is automatically restored.

What if networks and databases could be configured, maintained and accessed using analogous approaches? Organizations could then redirect programmers and systems administrators to higher value added tasks and functions. Users would interact directly with applications and gain greater control over their data and information.

We have to start thinking of how to make IT work as productive as possible, not just for the end user, but also for the masses of programmers, analysts, system administrators and network managers. These are only initial ideas of how computers and networks could be used more productively. The need is already great, and will only grow greater in the years ahead. If we don’t start acting now, then we will be in an even tighter squeeze down the road as the changing demographics of advanced societies make workers even more of a rarity.

The IT sector has benefited from its novelty and the challenge it offers to creative young people for decades—ever since the invention of the PC really—but now it must face the demographic music just like every other sector of the economy. Increasing the productivity of knowledge work is a necessity, but drastic increases in the productivity of IT work are even more critical to our continued economic growth and to creation of wealth and quality of life.

Richard Martin is president of Alcera Consulting, a management consulting firm that helps individuals and organizations to thrive in the face of rapid change and uncertainty.