4 min read

European IT: What Angst?

One research firm is suggesting that mobile-phone usage is going to surpass 100% in Europe very soon.
One wonders what is going on Over There. On the one hand, Europe has long been ahead of the United States in technology areas as diverse as mobile computing, open systems, and standards in general.

One research firm is suggesting that mobile-phone usage is going to surpass 100% in Europe very soon.For its part, the Information Technology Infrastructure Library--a set of best practices that covers the IT waterfront and is increasingly gaining traction in huge American companies--was developed in the United Kingdom. It came from the E-government initiative originally pushed by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher back in the 1980s and has adherents in U.S. organizations including American Express and Caterpillar, among others. (Think of ITIL as a kinder, gentler version of Six Sigma.)

On the other hand, though, there seems to be a new, collective gnashing of teeth from our colleagues in Europe regarding IT. According to a recent survey, Europeans see themselves trailing U.S. businesses when it comes to productivity. They believe that increased IT investments will close that gap.

That story cited a survey released Monday by Siemens Business Services. (I feel compelled to point out here that Siemens, an IT services firm, announced the survey at the same time it was introducing a service designed to help European companies be more productive with IT. OK, now we're all up to speed.)

In that survey, over half of the European tech execs responding said they believe they need to increase spending on IT to catch up with American productivity levels. On average, an analysis by the Conference Board shows, the productivity level of the EU-15 (the 15 "original" European nations) was at 92% of the U.S. level in 2004.

I'm puzzled, though. If it's true that many European firms are planning on bumping up their IT investments at least in part to play catch-up with the United States, there aren't many signs of that.

Recent IDC research pointed to Europe as a particularly troublesome area, with worsening economic conditions already forcing some large firms to back off major IT purchases. Western Europe's IT market is now expected to grow by just 4% during 2005, slightly lower than the 5% growth still anticipated in the United States. And then there's last week's news from IBM, which said it will cut up to 13,000 jobs--most of those from its European groups.

With all this confusion, here's my theory, and it has nothing really to do with IT: Europeans know darn well they're not quite as productive as U.S. workers--and it's OK with them. If you look at vacation and other types of time-off benefits in Europe versus those in the United States, you'll see what I mean. Six weeks in a seaside villa, with the company defraying a significant chunk of the cost, sounds pretty good to me. So does a two-hour siesta around lunchtime. And yes, I realize that is not the case throughout the whole of Europe.

But it may be worth looking at as one differentiator regarding the productivity rate. I don't think that too many of the EU nations have the "Puritan work ethic" to deal with like we have here in the United States. I can't imagine most Americans requesting six weeks off, all at one time, without the boss erupting into peals of laughter or inquiring with a serious mien when exactly the worker making the extended time-off request received his fatal health diagnosis.

So around now, I'm thinking that hearing some Europeans complain about the productivity gap is like hearing my fellow New Englanders kvetch regardless of whether it's hot or cold outside. It's a birthright, and we wouldn't change a thing about it, even if we could.