Boost Your Productivity in Information Work

No doubt about it: Technology has changed the way knowledge work gets done. But have you changed your work habits enough to get the most from information technology?

Researchers Sinan Aral, Erik Brynjolfsson and Marshall Van Alstyne have been studying information worker productivity for a number of years. (See, for example, “What Makes Information Workers Productive,” a 2008 MIT Sloan Management Review article about some of their work.)

In a new working paper, the three researchers highlight selected findings from their own work and that of others in order to offer practical tips to help information workers — and top managers — improve their own productivity and that of their organizations.

Here’s a quick summary of Aral, Brynjolfsson and Van Alstyne’s four recommendations for improving individual productivity in information work:

1. Be an “information hub” in your network and maintain a diverse network of contacts.
Getting or sending a lot of e-mail is not, by itself, the best predictor of high productivity. But workers who are more central to information networks — who are well-connected and broker information between others — tend to be more productive, the researchers report.

2. Keep your e-mail messages brief and focused.
Research, the three authors observe, suggests that people who send short e-mails are likely to get responses more quickly than those who send longer, less focused ones. And getting faster responses to e-mail questions translates into better productivity.

3. Use technology such as e-mail to multitask more — within reason.
In one of their studies, Aral, Brynjolfsson and Van Alstyne found that more productive employees used technology to enable them to multitask more and complete more projects. But that tip comes with an important caveat: The researchers also found that, if taken to extremes, excessive multiasking can actually decrease productivity.

4. Delegate routine information work to subordinates and use information-support systems.
The scholars found that the most productive information workers were more likely to allow lower-value information work to be handled by subordinates or IT-based tools. Those high-productivity information workers also were most likely to have knowledge of specialized information sources that gave them an advantage.

Aral, Brynjolfsson and Van Alstyne’s working paper, “Harnessing the Digital Lens to Measure and Manage Information Work” is available on SSRN.com. The working paper is very readable and also includes four lessons for top management about improving information worker productivity within their organizations.

For more on Brynjolfsson’s ideas about how information technology is leading to innovation in business generally, see MIT Sloan Management Review’s interview with him about “The 4 Ways IT is Driving Innovation.”

To learn about Van Alstyne’s new research, with Hind Benbya, on knowledge markets within organization, see Benbya and Van Alstyne’s article “How to Find Answers Within Your Company,” from the new Winter 2011 issue of MIT Sloan Management Review.

6 Comments On: Boost Your Productivity in Information Work

  • TC | January 13, 2011

    This is a much needed article, it seems that the information field can be so full of distractions and multi-tasking that working at your maximum potential can be very difficult.

  • david k | January 27, 2011

    I agree with keeping email focused but not necessarily short or encouraging immediate action.

    Email subject lines and the first few text body lines need to provide summary information, in particular, because many executives only look at what appears on the initial screen of a blackberry.

    The additional information can provide supporting evidence, background, and links to more information.

  • Avik Saha | January 28, 2011

    Well, it’s the social media – facebook, twitter etc – which is going to keep us well-connected and help us become “information hub” as well as spoke.

  • Vik A | January 30, 2011

    A couple of things that I do on a daily basis:

    1) Before leaving work, I look at my ‘todays’ To-Do list and ensure what was done and what wasn’t.
    2) Then look at tomorrow’s calender to see a) what’s on and b) how & when I could complete my tasks in the To-Do list.

    These two things help me manage my time effectively. It helps me figure out easily (rather than being hasty and missing important details) what I need to do next. Further if I have a deliverable due, it helps me communicate and update my stakeholders clearly.

  • Enrico | February 8, 2011

    I find using Skype Chat (with colluegues) is a great tool for increasing productivity. But as you pointed out, it (technology) can become detrimental if overused or used for personal reasons.

  • William Xifaras | March 13, 2011

    Necessary to be connected in today’s world. Technology, with all its advantages, can act like a double-edged sword. If we can’t pry ourselves away from email, facebook, twitter, etc. then productivity will suffer.

    Professor Brynjolfsson’s recommendations pave the way for the best of both worlds.

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