Thursday, February 23, 2006

Productivity and U.S. values

Today's news contains an interesting article about feelings in the U.S. concerning personal productivity. Reading the comments reveals, in a general way, a lot about U.S. values. At the same time the implicit link with other events -- in particular the image of the U.S. in the world (see a Newsweek article published today) -- casts a melancholic light on history itself as the feeling that things are degenerating on many fronts is starting to make this début de siècle feel more and more like a fin de siècle.

Here's one of the interesting quotes from the article on productivity:

“We never concentrate on one task anymore. You take a little chip out of it, and then you’re on to the next thing,” Challenger said on Wednesday. “It’s harder to feel like you’re accomplishing something.”

Information technology -- which has driven the U.S. economy over the past 30 years -- has put a new and unexpected kind of cultural pressure on the U.S. Americans. Ironically, multi-tasking comes naturally and is easily dealt with in polychronic cultures, but has a disturbing effect on the monochronic culture that invented and promoted the technology.

A second quote reminds us of some of the basics in the U.S. value system:

“We think we’re faster, smarter, better with all this technology at our side and in the end, we still feel rushed and our feeling of productivity is down,” said Maria Woytek, marketing communications manager for Day-Timers, a unit of ACCO Brands Corp.

"Faster" reminds us of the importance of speed, which is pretty straightforward. When we analyze "smarter" in this context it has little to do with increased intellectual ability. It refers to the fact that, thanks to technology, we have accumulated more information, linking with notions of ownership and capitalism. It reflects the naive belief that more in quantity necessarily converts to more in quality. "Better" of course reminds us of the deep-seated need to feel at the forefront of history, as the pionneers and leaders who are showing others the way, the "city on the hill".

Ronald Downey, the psychologist interviewed for this article aptly states that technology
“... just increases the expectations that people have for your production” and the consultant Don Grimme adds,

“The irony is the very expectation of getting more done is getting in the way of getting more done,” he said. “People are stressed out.”

Speed used to be seen as manageable in U.S. culture. But the acceleration has been so great and the returns so consistently diminishing that the "speed culture" of the U.S. is entering into a real crisis. Much of it is probably economic and linked to globalisation: to maintain the traditional lifestyle of conspicuous consumption more output is required and therefore more work is required. The convergent effects of feminism and overseas competition for jobs has begun to take its toll. One of the effects of feminism was to put the majority of child-bearing age women to work, presumably by their choice as a gauge of equality, but it also created the conditions in which normal household revenue had to include two salaries, which wasn't the case before the 1970s. So what was first a choice became a necessity, a condition which inevitably produces stress as the awareness of a margin of maneuver disappears.

There is one positive finding, reasonably consistent with the bases of U.S. culture:

Companies that are flexible with workers’ time and give workers the most control over their tasks tend to fare better against the sea of rising expectations, experts said.

I say "reasonably consistent" because freedom of action is a fundamental U.S. value and therefore flexibility fits in nicely and naturally with work practices. On the other hand the importance of control -- especially in capitalistic economic settings -- has made it difficult to transfer power to lower levels even if responsibility is easily transferred (the mismatch between power and responsibility is a phenomenon that deserved to be studied). Shareholders increasingly control management and management, though judged on overall performance (particular in terms of pure financial results) is tempted on the one hand to micro-manage, thereby restricting flexibility (though theoretically respecting it) and to transfer concern to the purely financial side of operations, to the detriment of production and productivity. These contradicatory tendencies may turn out to be destructive in the end, especially as finance has become the principle obsession of management to the point of "cheating" both honestly (boosting value through acquisitions) and dishonestly (hiding economic reality, Enron-style) in order to shore of share prices.

The end of the article is somewhat depressing:

Finally, there’s a trend among companies to measure job performance like never before... There’s a sense that no matter how much I do, it’s never enough.”

It's a fitting conclusion that the concern with measurement and quantification -- considered to be the keys to rational organisation -- should have the effect of augmenting stress. This leaves a definite feeling that we have entered a crisis of civilization where the actions associated with basic values have begun to lose their stable meaning and deep doubt is starting to take root.

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