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Dave Coplin explains how we must work smarter to address the productivity crisis

The UK economy faces a massive problem, one that extends beyond the recession and transcends governments and political parties. It is the problem of productivity.

It may sound counter-intuitive, after all, isn’t productivity supposed to be the solution not the problem? The truth is, right now there is a productivity crisis that has the UK (and many other economies) in its grasp. But why is this the case? Especially when many feel they are working harder and have less free time than ever before.

Much of our understanding and approach to productivity comes from the end of the 19th century from the work of a handful of people like Frederick Winslow Taylor and Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, who were amongst the first people in our industrialised society to take a keen interest in the science of work. Taylor in particular, valued efficiency. He believed that if he could make the workers more efficient, both the organisation and the workers would benefit. But perhaps the most significant remnant of his legacy is not so much about the science of management but instead that we are left in a world that seems to value process over outcomes.

A recent study by Microsoft provided stark evidence of how bad the problem actually is. In a poll of a representative sample of the UK workforce, 77% of respondents declared that clearing their email inbox was a “productive day at work”. If you’re struggling with why this might be a problem, let me just remind you that email is just a process of work; it is not in itself the product of work. However,this particular technology has enslaved us all and is fast reaching breaking point where neither the machines, nor the humans using them, can cope with the deluge that overwhelms us every single day.

Now I get the irony of this, here I am a fully paid up a representative of the technology industry telling you that there’s a problem with technology. But before you dismiss the argument, I need you to consider this: most of the problems we face today with our relationship with technology exist not because of failures with the technology itself but because we are using new technologies to work in old fashioned ways.

Today, most of us still work like Victorians, only we use 21st century tools to make that work slightly better or quicker. Our 20th century approach to work and life is fast approaching a point where it can no longer support the pressures of, or more importantly rise to the opportunities afforded by, the 21st century. If we continue on our current path, without fundamentally changing our definition of productivityor changing our working habits, the ability to ‘work smarter’ is simply untenable, leaving only the prospect of working harder in order to survive.

But this cannot be our future. Instead, our challenge is to think sufficiently differently to see the potential to change the way we live and work, so that we make the most of both the human and technological opportunity that our future holds. Instead of focusing on processes of work like hours spent, emails answered or forms filled, we need to reconnect our people with outcomes: the products, services and subsequent value created for customers. This means moving away from a world fixated by Taylor’s legacy of efficiency and instead focus more on ‘effectiveness’, empowering people to achieve more both inside and outside of work by ensuring that the result of all their efforts is meaningful.

Providing technology that empowers people to achieve more has been at the heart of Microsoft’s mission for over 40 years. But as the world has changed so have we. We know it is no longer enough to use technology to help expedite traditional ways of working; instead we need to rise up and embrace a new wave of technologies that fundamentally change our opportunity.

In order to achieve this, we need to remember that technology is here to help and that the success of our future will depend entirely on our ability to grasp the potential it offers us. As a result, our aspiration should be to do things differently, not the same things slightly better.

Dave Coplin is the Chief Envisioning Officer of Microsoft UK. He originally wrote this piece for the December edition of our Centre Write magazine.