David Johnson believes we have a crisis of attention in the workplace that technology managers need to pay attention to.
The analyst with Forrester Research argues that technology managers, driven primarily by cost and security concerns, have been mostly oblivious to the impact of their hardware and software on the work flow of knowledge workers in their organizations. Instead, he says, they have to learn about industrial psychology, notably intrinsic motivation, and pick technology that helps rather than impedes employees in their daily work.
Knowledge workers need periods to focus intently on their projects – a chance to hit what has been termed "flow," when they are in the groove, unaware of time, working at full capacity. But interruptions get in the way, many from technology.
Even when individuals figure out ways to protect themselves against e-mail and phone interruptions, technology places other impediments in their way. Sometimes the technology is awkward or outdated, hard to use. Sometimes it requires excessive signing-in protocols or approvals before important data can be accessed. Sometimes, employees can be more effective using technology that's not approved for the workplace. It all adds up to frustration, as autonomy and flow are blocked. That's why Mr. Johnson is urging executives in his report to act.
Gresham's Law tells us bad money drives out good money. In what he calls "the hot mess of distractions" in the modern workplace, low-level work displaces high-level work. Distracted workers tend to skip or put off tasks with high value, like planning and problem solving. "If we can't get into flow, we get very good instead at transactional things like answering e-mail or checking voice-mail. We avoid heavy thinking because we know we won't be successful," he said in an interview.
He says neuroscience shows we start the day with a certain amount of cognitive fuel that gets depleted by our activities, with interruptions costing us dearly. He recommends starting the day with the big, important stuff and then perhaps scheduling meetings before and after lunch, when your mind can cogitate over the issues you were dealing with in the premeeting effort. "It takes work – discipline – to do this. We tend to gravitate to the path of least resistance. So we don't do the heavy work at the start of the day, the thinking, and instead reach for e-mail," he said.
In a sense, knowledge workers are like athletes – and the people providing their technology have to see them in that vein. Knowledge workers have goals, and take pride in their work, trying to improve all the time. "It's the pursuit of mastery that's similar between athletes and knowledge workers. If you're an engineer or a physician and intrinsically motivated, you want to pursue mastery every day. But technology can get in the way," he observed.
He throws out as an example a software developer working on a new app. He's in the flow, getting up a great head of steam. But when he tries to access some vital information, it's on a shared drive that he doesn't have access to. He needs to gain permission, asking for an appropriate password. "That's very destructive," he said. And it's all too common as rules over technology, designed for valid security reasons, create snags.
Instead, he urges technology managers to operate on a trust-but-verify model: Give people wide access to information and keep track of access, notifying appropriate people. "Policies need to be arranged so people are not blocked from doing work. If, in doing their work, they override a policy, let them. Just make sure they know the implications of what they are doing, log it, and make sure the proper people are notified," he said.
He urges technology managers to set high standards for technology design to preserve flow. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who popularized the notion of flow with his psychological studies, said: "Whenever a new technology is introduced, it pays to ask the question: How will this affect enjoyment of the work?"
Mr. Johnson notes that Boeing, in designing the 787, set standards to preserve focus for workers using its computer-aided three-dimensional design system. When an engineer manipulates a 3-D model of an aircraft component, the designer perceives smooth movement only if the system renders updates at 16 hertz or faster. Boeing ruled out cheaper technologies because the cost to productivity and flow would have been too high.
Technology managers should also not guess at what employees need. They should survey knowledge workers to understand the rhythms of the work and how technology helps or hinders, digging deep to understand behaviour. Be prepared to eliminate antiquated technology that slows employees down – the cost of not replacing technology may be much higher than you realize. It also wouldn't hurt technology executives to learn about industrial psychology. Right now, empathy and understanding the psychology of knowledge workers is a missing link in technology decisions.
"Cognitive science will play an increasingly important role in technology management in the next few years. We need to create the conditions for people to do their best work," he said.
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter