Productivity Grows, And So Does Our Stress Level

It would be nice for someone to mention that individual workers are being asked to do a whole lot more these days.
As optimism starts to work its way through the U.S. business environment and CEOs start to once again focus on value and growth, I'd like to share a couple of facts and statements that I've collected over the past week:

  • The Labor Department reports that American worker productivity jumped 9.4% in the third quarter of 2003--the largest increase in 20 years.

  • On the topic of the jobless recovery: "The labor market is like wet wood in a bonfire," said Edward F. McKelvy, senior economist at Goldman Sachs & Company, in The New York Times on Feb. 6. "It's working, but it's not working very well."

  • Cisco employment is holding steady, but John Chambers has set a goal that worker productivity will increase from $632,000 to $700,000 per employee, a 10.76% increase.

  • 82% say that their company's productivity is higher now than ever before, according to the February issue of Optimize.

For the most part, these are positive signs that provide the needed ammunition for the presidential candidates to say that our economy is pointed in the right direction. However, are we sure this is correct? Just this past week, Kodak and Cigna disclosed significant layoffs; first-quarter '04 productivity reports, while in line with expectations, were well below fourth-quarter '03 reports; and the value of the U.S. dollar is still weakening.

I bring these conflicting facts up because no one really knows which way the economy is going, but it certainly helps if people feel a sense of confidence. And that's what's making me scratch my head, because the more I talk to all of you business-technology professionals, it seems that your lives aren't getting any easier but, rather, more stressful. Be it balancing budgets, managing technology, partnering with customers, complying with federal regulations, securing your business architecture, appeasing your CXO counterparts, arguing the business case of offshore outsourcing, building business credibility, and reconfiguring the mathematical algorithm that "guaranteed" the 38 point under for the New England-Carolina Super Bowl, all of you are saying the same thing: "We continue to be asked to do more with less."

This current business environment makes me wonder if we're just getting caught up in the election hype rather than actually experiencing a recovery. Again, we can pretend to be economists and debate the future, but until our individual lives start to show a sense of calm and employers start to give us assurances that our jobs are safe, I tend to be on the glass-half-empty side.

Unless, of course, my expectations aren't realistic and this current environment is what we should always come to accept. Before the HM Treasury Enterprise Conference in London, Alan Greenspan stated, "In economies at the forefront of technology, most new jobs are the consequence of innovation, which by nature is not easily predictable. ... We can thus be confident that new jobs will displace old ones as they always have, but not without a high degree of pain for those caught in the job-losing segment of America's massive job-turnover process."

In a recent cartoon, the great social philosopher Dilbert dismisses an individual and gives all of that person's responsibility to another employee. In the next panel, he tells his boss, with a sly smile, that productivity is up 100%. Now, how much of this is artistic license, and how much reflects reality. Some people feel that the attitude reflected in this strip reflects the mindset of American business--have we really slipped that far? A lot of people are feeling less than secure in their jobs these days. Is this a temporary condition, or will it be long-lived?

Ah, life in today's business world, with all of its changes, flux, upheavals, and uncertainty. Or could we more accurately describe this scenario as rich with opportunities? Clearly, lots of people don't see it that way.

Now don't get me wrong, increased productivity is an essential component in a growing economy, and it's the optimization of business technology that's helping us see such significant growth. However, it sure would be nice for someone to mention every now and then that the individual worker is being asked to do a whole lot more and that, too, is increasing productivity.

If you have any comments on your current opinion of the "improved" economy, send me an E-mail at [email protected]. I'm not sure I can provide any answers, but you will certainly have an open ear willing to listen.

Michael Friedenberg is a VP at CMP Media and the publisher of InformationWeek.

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