The latest Labor Department numbers are in, and they confirm the health of the labor market. Impressively, initial jobless claims are the lowest they have been in more than 40 years. What hasn't followed suit is productivity. As has been the case since the start of the recession, U.S. worker productivity continues to stall. That trend has been mystifying economists and other watchers of work over the past few years. Productivity increased dramatically as IT transformed the workplace from roughly 1990 to 2005, but since the beginning of the recession in 2007, productivity growth appears to have returned to the levels of the 1970s and 1980s.
With continued internet-enabled technological innovations enhancing the way we live, work and play today, why isn't worker productivity continuing to advance at prior rates?
Some have suggested that the productivity gains from information technology are an anomaly, and prior rates of 1-1.5% are more the norm. Or it could be that while we have benefited from broad gains in information technology and readily available (i.e. personal computer) processing capacity, we have not yet fully enjoyed productivity gains from mobile technology. This is especially true when we consider the realm of human resources and staffing, and the application of mobile technology in the distributed workplace.
Use of desktop technology has significantly enhanced productivity of knowledge workers over the past 30 years. But smartphones have only been around for five years, and enterprise mobile-first applications are still their infancy. Kevin Spain at Emergence Capital has pointed out that non-desk workers represent about 80% of the global workforce, out of over 3 billion people in the global workplace. And even in developed economies, smartphone adoption has only recently surpassed 60% of the total population. In terms of mobile applications for improving workplace productivity, we're just getting started.
Companies--some of whom are threatened by new on-demand technology--are looking at how they can use mobile applications not only for communication and information dissemination, but also to improve productivity by changing the way they manage distributed teams.
What does this look like in the real world? It means that consulting or market research firms broadcast complex tasks to mobile-enabled teams (crowdsourced or their own teams) when they need to quickly gather field data and intelligence. One client who did this shaved 60% off costs relative to their previous method of data gathering, and got the job done 35% faster. It means that companies with available work are able to immediately dispatch or make this work visible to available prospective employees with the right qualifications, in the right location. It means that consumer brands, retailers and hotels that want information on local delivery of products and services can not only capture this information, but can also trigger execution/fix cycles where they identify problems.
Large organizations use "on-demand" technology for their business in different ways, but they recognize that the same technology pioneered by on-demand economy businesses can also significantly improve the productivity of their teams.
In terms of the future of American productivity, I stand with the optimists. We're on a steep learning curve as our ability to put new technologies to everyday use--and our willingness to invest in the infrastructure they require-- catches up with our inventiveness. But I'm more convinced than ever that, by embracing technologies of the on-demand economy, both workers and companies will win. Mobile and online technologies simply offer too much productivity upside to ignore.