shooting a video on a phone
It's time we rethink what we mean (and measure) with productivity PHOTO: veeterzy

I used to love when a substitute teacher walked into my classroom when I was in grammar school, because instead of taking notes about chlorophyll and atoms, we’d get to watch Bill Nye the Science Guy and Reading Rainbow. 

Students weren’t very productive on substitute teacher days. 

We didn’t fill out worksheets. We didn’t take tests. We didn’t write any reports. The day was a waste. After all, what tangible “thing” did we create to prove that we learned something?

Never mind that 30 years later, I still remember Bill Nye chainsawing a giant loaf of bread to demonstrate the earth’s many layers, and loving the fascinating story of Jumanji that I wanted to read over and over (and now read to my own child).

The Promise of Increased Productivity 

By today’s productivity standards, those days were a waste — no written output, no measurement — yet what I learned still resonates with me decades later, and in a much more important way than any worksheet would have. Do YOU remember a favorite spelling test? Yeah, me neither. But I bet you remember reading your favorite book.

Let’s apply this story to the workplace and our concept of modern productivity. 

Productivity, when it comes to the digital workplace and social collaboration, means that employees can produce more, faster, with less, because information is democratized and readily available. 

Most enterprise social and collaboration tools promise to be the technology that facilitates a more productive way of working. Slack publishes ads full of rainbows and unicorns with the promise of making you 32 percent more productive and an attendee of 25 percent fewer meetings. Yammer promotes Microsoft IT’s more productive workdays thanks to its collaboration tool. 

And lest you worry that Facebook’s Workplace is all fun and no business, it mentions productivity as a key outcome on its homepage.

Value Isn't Always Readily Measurable

With these social networking tools, employees are supposed to do more, share more and produce more. 

Enterprise collaboration tools are marketed as aiding us in the documentation, dissemination and management of tangible work product. Economists and profit-hungry companies worry because productivity is no longer growing annually on a per-employee basis. We’re only just as productive today as we were a few years ago.

Collaboration tools are supposed to help us digitize everything we know to produce more growth-driving output. Even though the toolset may be more modern than email or fax machines, collaboration vendors are still mostly optimizing for the capture of written words that describe our knowledge.

However, tangible outputs are not everything that we accomplish at work, just like they weren’t at school. 

Learning, leading, teamwork, ideating, teaching, cooperating and recognizing others are all key elements of work that are facilitated by enterprise social tools. When are we going to drop our obsession with productivity outputs and start taking a more holistic approach to the value that employees create using enterprise social networks or otherwise? 

Soon, because our ability to capture various types of content is evolving.

The Inputs Are Changing

Companies must become comfortable with different measurements of employee output because the inputs are changing. On Wednesday, I visited Facebook’s Menlo Park, Calif. headquarters for a Facebook Workplace event with customers, analysts and partners.  

Workplace Americas Director Monica Adractas made a very striking point about how most employee communication and knowledge lives as text today. This is rapidly changing in the consumer world and, albeit more slowly, at work. Enterprise social networks provide the ability to share knowledge in the form of photos, videos and eventually, she said, virtual and augmented reality. 

Think of the possibilities when we start to integrate non-written forms of knowledge as inputs into the process of work. As we begin to look at knowledge in a more holistic way, tools like Workplace and others will help bring about a deeper understanding of the value employees provide aside from their written output. 

Some examples:

  • Photos and video sharing can give real-time context about physical locations to those who aren’t there. They can convey emotion and capture details that words can’t. Whether it’s retail employees snapping photos of inventory during the holiday season, or a real-time video town hall with an executive being shared with all staff, visual knowledge brings tremendous value to a company. Enterprise social networks provide new capabilities for broadly sharing imagery that is just as valuable as written knowledge
  • Sentiment analysis by way of evaluating written text will be much less relevant. Workplace, for example, offers traditional “likes” and other emotional reaction buttons (anger, amusement and sadness to name a few) on all posted content. Community managers can garner employee sentiment by monitoring these voluntary emotional reactions to stories and content. Inputs in this case are employee feelings, and the outputs are an understanding of what’s making your workforce tick
  • Contextual learning and cultural transmission happens by exploring the personas developed by users over time. As individuals post text, videos, photos and react to content, their unique persona is built. A representative from Hootsuite spoke at the event and suggested having new employees spend part of their first day browsing and absorbing these online personas (in the way of social profiles) as part of an onboarding exercise. The inputs here are their actions in the social network, and the outputs are better informed colleagues

None of these inputs rely solely on text, and the outcomes are not necessarily tangible either. But the possibilities are endless when companies begin to value the diversity of content in employee communications.

The Next Generation of Productivity and Knowledge

For social evangelists who want to help their companies step away from the output-only productivity trap, I encourage you to develop photo and video-based use cases for your enterprise social network. 

Study examples of how “reactions” to a post illustrated a common sentiment about a key topic, and what the company did as a result of learning this. Uncover stories from users about how simple browsing and absorbing the context of their new colleagues allowed them to work smarter and with more confidence. 

And then proliferate these ideas broadly. 

While change won’t happen overnight, strengthening the case for appreciating the intangible values of your community with these examples will help dissolve our obsession with doing more, with less and faster. 

(Editor's Note: Carrie Young will be speaking on Nov. 15 at KMWorld in Washington, DC, as part of a Digital Workplace panel, discussing Workplace by Facebook and its capabilities for knowledge management.)