When Innovation Stalls Productivity
One of the drags on our nation's economic recovery is a sharp decline in the worker productivity rate.
According to the July 19 issue of The Economist, non-farm business productivity is averaging a little more than 1% annual growth since the recovery began. That's about half the annual growth average of 2.3% from 1947 to 2007. The worst numbers have been recorded in the last three years.
What's behind those dismal figures?
It's not due to a lack of innovation. Mobile technologies, social media and big data are reshaping American business.
You can see it in the credit union space. Just a few years ago, mobile banking was still considered a futuristic delivery channel. Today, it's a must-have. Mobile banking has expanded far beyond checking balances and reviewing transactions. Apps are being used to push car and home buyers toward credit union financing, and are boosting noninterest income by improving the adoption rate of services like insurance products. Mobile apps are also making business development easier, allowing staffers to sign up members on the spot, rather than requiring them to return paper applications to branches to be opened by another employee.
Innovation is driving change at CU Times, too. Back when I started here in 2005, stories were written for our print magazine first, and then sliced and diced as an afterthought for use online. Now, we produce two different products, reporting breaking and spot news online, and publishing in-depth analysis in print. We also plan to launch a new social media initiative for our reporters next month that will increase reader engagement, transforming our traditional one-way news delivery into two-way conversations.
The Economist reasoned that such disruptive technology takes a while to produce quantifiable results. The magazine compared today to the 1980s, when computers started to become more common in the workplace, but didn't affect productivity figures for more than a decade.
That makes sense. Things have changed so fast, we’re all still trying to figure out how to integrate technology into our existing brands. Credit unions continually upgrade their digital offerings, but most also still fully staff branches.
CU Times continues to publish a weekly print issue while increasing our emphasis on digital delivery and new engagement metrics.
The way we measure productivity must also change. America is no longer the giant widget factory she once was in the 1950s. While it's easy to measure how many print pages CU Times publishes, annual advertising revenue earned or even website page views, it's far more difficult to measure less tangible production efforts like engagement.
The drop in productivity can also be blamed on a lack of infrastructure investment post-recession. I can see the way this has affected my own productivity. I’ve been using the same laptop for a little more than three years, but what I demand of the hardware has increased significantly. A new Microsoft Word widget that expands spell check to include AP Style has replaced the human copy editing function. This new software could substantially increase my productivity, but instead it slows me down.
Why? Because it sucks up more processing speed than my laptop can handle, and frequently times out Word so I’m left sitting inactive, waiting for my computer to catch up. It's not that CU Times scrimps on technology, but rather, the traditional hardware lifespan is shrinking due to the rapidly increase pace of innovation. As the economic recovery continues to limp along, budgets haven't kept up.
That creates a classic chicken and the egg scenario. Infrastructure investment is necessary to increase production. But until production increases, companies lack the profits to make those investments.
The Economist faulted American governments for failing to spur productivity. America lags behind other industrialized nations that have retrained workers displaced by technology. Governments aren't providing incentives to invest in infrastructure, and increased regulations drag on productivity. I’m sure some shops feel like these days, the only thing they’re producing is compliance.
Blaming political polarization, special interests lobbying to keep anticompetitive regulations in place and a lack of attention from the Obama administration, the London-based magazine predicted America's economy will continue to muddle along. Here's hoping the Brits are wrong about that.