Computing and Financial Management seems to be the perfect program for productivity – after all, both tech and finance are resources to make challenging work possible, doable or faster. However, as you are taking course after course on how to write programs more efficiently or how to earn more money in financial markets, you might be asking yourself: “Why should I care about mass-producing repetitive work faster?”

These days, it’s actually not about working faster. To look at productivity broadly, Harvard Business Review’s “The New Productivity Challenge” gives us a broad bird’s eye view on where productivity has been and where it will go next. The article notes that for knowledge and service workers, which range from scientists to nurses, and salespeople to your everyday hamburger-flipping 16-year old, purely investing in more capital and technology does not work because it may or may not replace labour. We thought that computers (being faster) would replace all the clerical- and office jobs, but that sector has increased in size. Hospitals are another example. They used to be labor-only in the late 40s, but are now full of capital (equipment) such as ultrasound, body scanners, clean rooms. More highly paid people needed to be hired to operate on all the new equipment, which is a source of high healthcare costs today – thank goodness we have Medicare in Canada, but that is where our tax dollars are going.

Knowledge and service workers are also being overloaded with ‘busy work’ that is both not relevant to what they are paid for and qualified for, and does not add value to their departments. For instance, why has the need for nurses increased while hospital beds are half as empty as before? Because nurses are spending half their time filing paperwork for Medicare, Medicaid and insurers and trying to avoid being sued for malpractice.

Now, why do we care about knowledge and service workers? They are the area where productivity is highly needed – if we don’t raise it soon, then, because of the way the economy works, their incomes will go down. Service workers can then try to negotiate higher wages but that would drain value from the other jobs. Or, they won’t negotiate. Then the richer knowledge workers will get richer, and service workers will get poorer. In either case, there would be so much social tension between the rich and the poor that it is likely that a class war will start. There are a lot of knowledge and service workers, so it won’t be pretty.

Harvard Business Review found that we need to work smarter, not faster or harder – so far that is the only known way we can improve productivity for knowledge and service workers. They came up with 5 steps that have worked for several US and European employers:
1. Define tasks
2. Concentrate
3. Define performance: for every task, how much does quality or quantity matter?
4. Build responsibility for productivity and performance into every job
5. Continuous learning and continuous teaching (e.g. present ‘secrets of success’ at conferences)

Going back to the nurses’ example, some hospitals are now dealing with their work overload by hiring a front-desk clerk to take care of all the paperwork and phone calls. Doing so frees up at least a quarter of their need for nurses, and with a smaller team they can raise their salaries without raising payroll.

If you find yourself excited about this new way of looking at productivity, consider the path of a manager, executive or non-profit as those are the places where you can make the biggest impact on productivity. The article has many more examples of productivity improvements – old and new – that I find ingenious and cutting-edge.

What does this new perspective on productivity mean for a CFM student? For starters, knowing that being purely tech-driven or money-driven has its limitations gives us a chance to expand our thinking. When advocating for new technology or a new way of managing money, keep in mind that both need to be in line with what is going to do the most valuable, competitive work. (That is probably why it can take an infinitely long time to get a proposal approved in a big company.) I tend to do my best when I care about what I’m doing, so I am looking at fields I care about and seeing which ones absolutely need finance or tech to help them advance. You can even look at your own life as a student to find how you can work smarter – by scheduling, time-tracking, and having more of a work-life balance.

This new perspective on productivity also means that we can be powerful movers and shakers in making sure that a large chunk of the population doesn’t suffer from a low quality of life and low-quality jobs, and that we don’t have fights in our own backyards between the rich and the poor. Much more noteworthy than saying “My job is to mass-produce things faster”.

How will we become powerful movers and shakers? Stay tuned for my next article on productivity on December 19th, where I will look at where productivity in tech and finance are heavily needed and what our next steps as CFM students can be.

This post was written by Linna Zheng, 3B CFM.