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Bridging the gap between technology investment and productivity

Here’s a puzzle to ponder: Why is it that in today’s age of accelerating technology investments, where trends such as BYOD and IoT actively illustrate the compounding effects of Moore’s Law and Metcalfe’s Law impact of technology in business, does productivity growth across the major world economies seem stuck in low gear? If these technology investments in increasingly capable devices/things/solutions are empowering the digital transformation of business itself, why aren’t we seeing dividends of this transformation reflected in real productivity gains?

The quantitative metrics paint a concerning picture: In the United States, 2016 productivity growth was .2% according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and averaged an anemic .5% annual growth over the past six years. However, IT spending averaged around 3 to 4% per year the last five years, and is expected to continue at this pace over the next five years. This begs the question: Why is there a gap between technology investment and resulting productivity gains? The general expectation is that investments in technology to digitally transform your business and to enhance your business processes and workflows, the results of these investments should yield increase productivity for your business. Yet this gap between technology spend and productivity gains has led to calculations that the United States alone has missed $2.7 trillion in unrealized gross domestic product growth. There are plenty of theories on why this is, including that the metrics used to measure productivity themselves are suspect.

The role of complexity in digital transformation

I tend to side with the following theory: The rapid growth in technology investments combined with the fact that many of these investments are in rapidly evolving transformative technologies (such as SaaS, cloud, IoT, analytics) is resulting in both constant change and complexity for users. It is this complexity that is getting in the way of productivity, not the technology itself. This is a hard point to measure with quantitative statistics, but I witnessed many examples during my recent qualitative research and discussions with enterprises in the healthcare, higher education and technology verticals. These discussions focused on uncovering challenges in current business workflows that prevent users from doing what they want and need to do, and how these challenges serve as a barrier to productivity within the company as a whole. I approached these discussions with an interest in how the internet of things potentially adds value to how users interact with technology and enhance user workflows. My intent was not to probe with leading IoT-related questions but to sit back, listen and learn about how users adapt to broad changes within the workplace.

One example is in higher education, where community colleges and universities are investing in online education as a mechanism to reach more students or interact more effectively with on-site students. These investments often result in frustration on the part of the educators and teachers themselves where they often view online education as a barrier to teaching. Probing further, it became clear that instead of focusing on teaching material, teachers felt burdened with having to learn the intricacies of all the technology components required for online education. These include having to know how to operate, support and troubleshoot lecture capture solutions, audio and video hardware, online streaming solutions; monitor social engagement and manage the movement of digital content into and out of learning management systems. For many, they lack confidence and are uncomfortable with their technical ability to manage this orchestration. This uncertainty describes a rough edge to digital transformation. A community college administrator expressed his frustration to me when he said, “A big way to focus on student success factors is to let technology get out of the way,” and right now the technology is often seen by teachers to be a barrier to education, not an enabler.

Speaking to healthcare customers, much of the same sentiments rang true. The digitization of the patient record may be a regulatory requirement, but it’s also seen as a way to improve health care as it allows for a consistent patient record to follow a patient across multiple care providers. However, in talking to health care clinicians, frustrations surfaced in their belief that interfacing too much with a computer and not enough with their patients. For many, this outweighs any potential positives in digitizing the patient record. Often, clinicians feel they focus more on orchestrating the flow of patient data instead of actually listening to the patient in front of them. A radiologist noted that “introducing technology that improves doctor productivity is a worthy goal if it means we can spend more time with our patients.” In his opinion, that is not happening and less time is spent with patients. A health care partner shared that the advent of electronic medical records (EMRs) has slowed down doctor/patient interactions to the point that a typical doctor in a health care clinic sees five to nine fewer patients per day today than she did in the days before the adoption of EMRs. They said the goal of digital transformation in health care should be “to make patient visits more personable with less time staring at a screen,” but that the current technology tools in place are not enhancing or speeding up the doctor/patient interaction.

Both examples demonstrate real-life examples of how digital transformation may have laudable goals, but complexities related to digital transformation have led to frustration amongst everyday users.

Digital transformation: The death of traditional apps

These examples clearly illustrate that the very nature of the apps we use in our daily lives are changing. The traditional app model is one where the app sits in our data center (or the cloud) and presents information to us via a screen. But that is changing; apps are increasingly defined by the interaction of users, location, data and devices. The app itself is focused on a specific experience tied to a workflow or a workspace. Where this creates challenges is where these interactions break down and manual intervention is then required on the part of users who are not accustomed to this type of role. Users want these interactions to be seamless and transparent, and become easily frustrated when they must actively play a role in managing, viewing and participating in this interaction flow. This is another rough edge of digital transformation and I believe IoT can play a role in smoothing out these rough edges.

The value of context in the enterprise

The value of IoT in the enterprise goes well beyond “things;” the value is in managing and minimizing complexity and enhancing business processes. That doesn’t diminish the value of new and interesting things, as IoT is being driven by the rapid growth in devices and things, and this rapid growth does play a role in the complexity mentioned above. But this growth is also yielding a massive increase in connections between users, devices and things, and there is tremendous value in the data generated by these connections. This data reveals context about users: how they interact with apps, devices and things within a workspace. This context provides tremendous potential to streamline how interactive workflows and apps exchange information transparently within a workspace, and without requiring user interaction. For example, imagine a healthcare scenario where a doctor enters a patient space that automatically detects the presence of the doctor, the patient and any smart devices in the room. This presence information is used to automatically spin up the appropriate resources, manage the flow of data and present the correct information to the doctor and patient — all with minimal user orchestration required. I know some may immediately jump to the potential security concerns with the movement of potentially sensitive data, but this context can enhance security and serve as an even stronger way to authenticate and authorize users, apps and data.


As noted above, the gap between technology investment and productivity is large. This gap exists during an unrelenting period of technology innovation that surprisingly is not resulting in any significant gain in productivity. Instead, this period of digital transformation has yielded examples of digital disruption serving as a drag on productivity. However, there is potential to view this digital disruption as an opportunity to use the data generated by the interaction of users, devices, things and apps within a workspace to benefit the workflows and users within that space. This contextual information can be used to make technology interactions more transparent and focused on simplifying how users interact with technology. And the internet of things plays an integral role in helping organizations orchestrate interactions and workflows within their business, so their users can spend more time working and being productive and less time managing complexity and technology.

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