Can communication tools increase productivity?

When your company provides you with a personal digital assistant, do you really become more productive? See more essential gadgets pictures.
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Meet Diane. She's a classic multitasker, zipping through the grocery store, steering her wire basket with one hand while she clutches her iPhone with the other. She's nailing down details for the church fundraiser, which she instantly tweets into cyberspace as she slips her credit card through the self-checkout machine. Minutes later, idling in her car, she's on her laptop skyping her sister in London while texting her husband in Vermont. By the time Diane gets home and discovers she's forgotten the eggs, she'll have tweeted, Facebooked, IM'd, texted and e-mailed a dozen more times. Exasperated, she swears that next time she's leaving her smart phone at home.

People have been forgetting items at the market since before Morse code; one can't necessarily blame technology for lapses in focus. But communication tools like cell phones, e-mail, instant messaging (IM), video conferencing and social networking have revolutionized the way we interact with each other. Just as one example, in June 2009, scores of election protestors in Iran sidestepped government censorship by using Twitter to communicate with the world [source: NPR]. Though the story dominated news cycles for days, one could argue that Paul Revere's midnight ride, warning colonists that the British were coming, was just as effective. After all, in both instances, the message came through loud and clear.

Nevertheless, the communication tools of yore -- cups on a string, war drums and even the old-fashioned love letter -- are relics. Today's society uses smart phones, e-mail, social networking, texting, IM, online shared access software and video conferencing to interact. Whether these tools increase or decrease productivity is a matter of intense debate. Beleaguered managers, chafed when they catch employees frittering away time on Facebook, tend to believe too many communication tools can decrease productivity. Others, thrilled to be able to meet far-flung clients face-to-face through video conferencing, would argue that communication tools vastly improve productivity. Studies support both arguments. We'll dig into that data on the next page.