What Makes Information Workers Productive

Technology use, diverse networks and access to new information all enhance productivity. Multitasking also can offer productivity benefits — but only in moderation.

As the economies of industrialized countries have become more and more knowledge-based, the question of how to quantify, analyze and study the productivity of workers in information-intensive jobs has become much more important. After all, productivity in a steel mill or an automotive manufacturing plant can be measured in terms of tangible, easily quantifiable products — and many of the processes that produce those outputs are comparatively straightforward to observe and study. However, an information worker’s productivity is often considerably more amorphous than that of a steelworker or an assembly-line worker. What’s more, identifying the factors that contribute to productivity in an information-intensive job is complex.

Now, several researchers have developed a new strategy for gaining insights into information-worker productivity — and their research has yielded some intriguing findings about factors that contribute to the effectiveness of knowledge workers. These findings are discussed in two working papers, Information, Technology and Information Worker Productivity: Task Level Evidence (October 2006; given the best paper award at the 2006 International Conference on Information Systems) and Productivity Effects of Information Diffusion in Networks (May 2007), and are part of a multiyear study supported by Cisco Systems Inc., via the MIT Center for Digital Business. The authors are Sinan Aral, assistant professor at the Leonard N. Stern School of Business at New York University; Erik Brynjolfsson, the Schussel Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management and director of the MIT Center for Digital Business; and Marshall Van Alstyne, associate professor at Boston University School of Management.

To conduct their research, the authors studied a midsized executive recruiting company over a five-year period. In the recruiting company, output could be measured in terms of completed recruiting projects, each representing a certain amount of revenue for the company. The researchers used detailed accounting records from the company that included information about revenue per employee, employee workload and compensation and the time required to complete recruiting projects. The researchers also conducted surveys of employees to learn about factors such as the extent to which the recruiters used information technology tools, such as databases and e-mail.

An important component of the research was access to information from the recruiting company’s e-mail archives.

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