Technology, the intranet, and employee productivity

By Toby Ward - Employees shouldn’t waste too much time on the intranet; social media wastes time; the Internet is a productivity drain. These are common refrains and concerns expressed by many executives, albeit the less educated ones, generally of an older generation, nearing or past retirement.

The exact same concerns were made about employee bathroom breaks, mealtimes, telephone use, etc. General Motors, that great stalwart of financial prudence, used to hire people to time employees when they used the bathroom (source: Negotiate This, Herb Cohen).


"When speaking to clients the issue of productivity is often a concern,” says Jonas Lood, senior consultant with Prescient Digital Media (intranet consultants / specialists). “I frequently get asked "how do we leverage our intranet to improve information sharing, protect intellectual property while at the same time reducing the cost per employee?"

Every organization wants to maximize profit (cash flow) and ultimately, productivity drives profit; and so does innovation.

“When productivity rates leap, so do enterprise profits. In the past century, we have automated blue-collar work, wringing more products out of every worker hour,” says Susan Feldman, IDC analyst and author of the report, Hidden Costs of Information Work: A Progress Report. “But in an economy that is now more information based than industrial, increasing the productivity of the information worker has become imperative.”

Concerns about productivity, therefore, are real and valid. Although often these concerns are misplaced: if employee compensation and rewards models are all that they should be, and employees are accountable for objectives and goals, then concerns over productivity drain from activities such as using the Internet, or intranet, should abate (if the intranet is in fact a sound system, and not the dog’s breakfast that many still are). In short, the corporate intranet (and use of the Internet for activities such as research) can be a tremendous productivity gain, not a drain.

“As organizations downsize in this year's financial crisis, they will need to streamline and automate information tasks and processes if they are to survive with fewer workers,” adds Feldman (keep in mind, real estate may be rebounding, and the stock markets may be unusually high, but there is still a massive credit crunch, and there are many industries still in recession). “They will need to ferret out instances of duplicated effort, and they will need to invest in software that can speed up processes like ediscovery, categorization, call center support, publishing, and collaboration while reducing manual labor.”

IDC conducted a survey of 706 knowledge workers. IDC asked respondents about:

• various information tasks performed by knowledge workers; and
• repetitive tasks that might be prime targets for automation or improvement.

On average, IDC estimates the average information worker salary of $75,000 per year. They then took the data that we had gathered on the average number of hours spent on each task and discovered the following about the average information worker respondent:

• 13 hours per week spent on email (cost: $21,000 per year)
• 9 hours per week spent searching for information (cost: $14,000 per year)
• 8 hours per week analyzing information (cost: $13,000 per year)
• 6.5 hours per week communicating / collaborating with team members
(cost: $10,000 per year)
• 6 hours per week creating content (cost: $10,000 per year)
• Nearly 4 hours per week publishing information (cost: $6,000 per year)

The survey and the data are imperfect, but the general picture is well painted and the conclusion very clear: information workers spend a lot of time finding and processing information, at a very high cost. If we can make it easier to find information, employee productivity will rise, and profits will soar.

Fortunately, technology is a productivity driver. And the technology platform that powers this productivity is the corporate intranet.

“Even well tuned intranets can suffer from information fatigue,” says Prescient’s Lood. “A well planned intranet, with a strategy in place that supports the business requirements will take you well on your way in identifying the optimum information and communications channels for your organization."

Moreover, IDC finds that new Intranet 2.0 tools are also a preferred, and powerful technology of choice for driving productivity.

“With Web 2.0 applications creeping into the enterprise — with or without IT approval — it's obvious that ingenious information workers will find tools to help them accomplish their work no matter where those tools come from,” says IDC. “This year's survey on the use and preferences for information worker productivity tools shows that newer tools, particularly instant messaging (but also social networking and blogs), were preferred over more traditional ones like email or team workspaces.”

The most preferred / valued tool according to respondents is instant messaging; followed by the phone, desktop authoring tools (e.g. MS-Word), email, web conferencing, social networking, and blogs. In fact, email is rated only a shade higher than social networking. Many, myself included, often look at email as a frequent productivity drain.

“Information work is costly, but it's also valuable, as long as the time spent working is productive,” says IDC. “Any dent that an organization can make in the hours information workers toil unproductively will have an immediate payoff.”

If your organization is not embracing and investing in technology such as the intranet and the new 2.0 tools then it in fact is threatened by productivity drains (as compared to the competition). The classic concern about productivity drains is well-founded, but misunderstood to the extent that technology is often a gain, not a drain.

Additional Reading

Too much useless information
Intranet ROI
Intranet redesign: building a business case