Can communication tools increase productivity?

A Bad Workman Blames His Tools

In 1993, Erik Brynjolfsson of MIT published a study called the "Productivity Paradox" in which he concluded that advances in information technology did not necessarily lead to an increase in productivity [source: Brynjolfsson]. Subsequent studies suggest that new communications technologies create distractions that may actually decrease productivity. One particularly sensational study of 1,100 Britons concluded that participants lost an average of 10 IQ points -- more than double the IQ drop for people smoking marijuana -- when they tried to juggle work and e-mail [source: CNN]. Another study by Nucleus Research, an IT research company, concluded that companies that allow Facebook in the workplace lose an average of 1.5 percent in total productivity [source: Nucleus].

On the other hand, the Internet was all abuzz in early 2009 with the news of an Australian study that concluded workers were an average of 9 percent more productive if allowed moderate personal use of the Internet [source: Melbourne University]. Furthermore, productivity in the business sector has steadily increased in recent years, according to the fourth quarter 2009 Bureau of Labor Statistics "Productivity and Costs" report [source: BLS].

Companies often list multitasking as a preferred skill for potential employees. But does multitasking really mean higher productivity? Stanford University professor Clifford Nass, who conducted research on multitasking, said, "People who multitask very, very frequently believe they are excellent at it and they're actually, as far as we can tell, the worst at it of any people" [source: NPR]. Nass and his partners studied three competencies: the ability to ignore irrelevant information, the ability to keep working memory organized and the ability to switch from one task to another. Multitaskers performed dismally in all three categories [source: NPR]. Their cell phones and computers, however, worked just fine.

And that brings us to the old English proverb: "A bad workman blames his tools." Like Morse code, the telephone and the fax machine, today's communication tools can and do enable us to get in touch with each other in speedy and novel ways. They certainly have the potential to increase productivity. However, as Diane, our egg-forgetting multitasker, illustrates, they also create distractions. It's up to us to manage those distractions and use our technology productively.

Now, if you could stop what you're doing and tweet this article, that would be great.

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