I am, for the most part, an optimist about the contribution technology can make to business and to people’s quality of life. It’s often a mixed blessing, of course, and there’s always the potential for unintended consequences or misuse, but if we’re going to run a modern economy, or arguably, a decent society, we need technology.
From time to time, however, I think it’s useful for even the most optimistic technophile to pause and ask some hard questions about just what contributions technology is making and where we might be (a) fooling ourselves and (b) able to do better to get the benefits that the smart and appropriate use of technology can bring. This is especially true now, as we move toward an increasingly software-defined, mobile, and connected world.
With this in mind, I want to draw your attention to an excellent article in a recent edition (October 2016) of the IEEE Computing Edge—always an interesting summary of technology topics, which you may not have on your regular reading list. In it, Shane Greenstein of Harvard Business School asks the following “10 open questions for techno-optimists”:
- Why are online photos and videos everywhere except in productivity statistics?
- How much productivity does email produce?
- What were the gains in the reduction in online search costs?
- What were the gains from making the “long tail” available?
- Up-to-date online news is additive. Is it productive too?
- Did the rise of remote work change productivity?
- How much did Wikipedia benefit the economy?
- Enterprises don’t own all their IT. Does that mean they are more productive?
- How big were the gains from serving low density areas?
- What is the value of the creative commons license?
In most cases these aren’t technology questions, they’re (mostly micro, some macro) economic questions. And each can be associated with a broad and often disruptive theme that’s of greater scope than the specific question. The entirety of the article is both an insightful read and a pointer to the lack of good quantitative economic research on the answers.
A very large amount of economic activity has become attached to each of these areas in the questions over the past 20 years—essentially, since the consumer internet as we know it debuted in 1995. It’s relevant to ask both how big have the gains been and when they actually occurred. Were they concentrated early on? Evenly distributed? Only lately? If we don’t really know (and it seems we don’t), we’re building current and future technology investment decisions on weak foundations indeed.
It’s worth the effort to track down Greenstein’s article and look at the additional depth he provides for these questions. Then (as he also invites) give some thought to the other unmeasured aspects of technology in business. Are smartphones really productivity aids, for example? Then, ask, “How we would we go about measuring these things in an enterprise setting?” While it might take some academic research to get good data at the level of the economy, we should be able to manage something a lot sooner within the business—and then learn if our optimism is justified.
John Parkinson is an affiliate partner at Waterstone Management Group in Chicago and a regular CFO columnist. He has been a global business and technology executive and a strategist for more than 35 years.