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Monday, September 08, 2003

High End Knowledge Workers, or Wal-Mart Serfs?

In the mailbox Marcelo has picked me up (I knew someone would) on the tongue in cheek comment I made Friday about Stephen Roach's IT problems:

the way I interpreted Stephen
Roach's argument, what he claims is that

a) The number of work hours has risen thanks to IT

b) The output of each of these hours has not (or hasn't as much as the
numbers suggest) because we spend a lot of them maintaining and fixing
that same IT.

Time spent baby-sitting our computers still counts as work time even if we're not doing anything productive at the moment [that's exactly, I think, Roach's admittedly anecdotal point], and this might potentially skew the productivity numbers [up to a point, in any case]. Your comment on working "both more and less hours" is thus true for a "work=time spent producing" framework, but it being necessary to fix your computers (or have somebody else fix them) before you can do any "real work", time installing patches or waiting for the computer to reboot must probably
count as worktime, as silly as that looks. I think.

To which I replied:

The point is this: Roach says that there is a measurement problem. I agree. It is very difficult to measure output in intangibles. This is also Gordon's point further down in the post.

But computer downtime, at least as Roach uses it, means we overestimate time spent working. So productivity is really greater.

On the other hand, 24/7 connectivity means we spend more time than we book, so this means we underestimate time, so productivity really is less.

This is why I say they cancel each other out. But the 24/7 factor is probably much greater.

However, 'downtime' is nothing new, or especially associated with IT. Talk to any factory worker. I have a friend in the UK who is a sociology professor who made his name in the 'sociology of work'. He made his name in the late 60's studying worker behaviour in car plants in merseyside near where I was born. What he found, was that when the workers got over-tired and felt like a break, they could, literally, throw a spanner in the works, and bring the production lines to a halt. This sort of 'logistics' problem lead to very low measured productivity growth in the UK at the time. Using Roach's argument it would actually have been much higher.

Also, much as I admire Roach's visceral feel for economics, he - like Krugman - does have an old mindset. Steve Wozniak is reputed to have held that H=F(3)

or Happiness = Fun, Friends and Food

The point about this is maybe that traditional (industrial?) work patterns involve a radical separation between work and leisure. This was obviously untrue of agricultural society (maybe there was no 'leisure') and it may not be true of the information age. In 24/7 connectivity, what is work and what is fun? Here we have a bit 'measurement' problem. And a big question: is the fact that it is a luxury you-cannot-afford to have a hobby which doesn't give you 'value added' as a person a sign of what some would call 'alienation' or is it a form of 'liberation'. I still haven't made up my mind.

Earlier this morning Marcelo came back down the wires:

If (labour: Edward) productivity is defined as Ouput/Working Time, and we define Working Time as "(Office hours working + Office hours downtime) + Home but working hours" we have

P = O/[(Ow + On) + Hw]

Clearly, (a) for fixed output rises in Hw should decrease P, and (b) computer problems shift hours from Ow to On, without affecting their sum, thereby without affecting P.

> But computer downtime, at least as Roach uses it, means we
> overestimate time spent working. So productivity is really greater.

Here I think lays the issue of the definition of "time spent working", which is what you wrote about later in your mail. Using the above notation, if you define productivity as

P' = O/[Ow + Hw]

then clearly increases in measured On, ceteris paribus, should increase our productivity numbers. It all boils down, I guess, to whether you consider On (the time you spent not workign but fixing your computer or waiting for your computer to be fixed) to be working time or not. That's a sociological question, but given most people's (for example Stephen Roach's) displeasure at having to fix their computers, and the fact that it's an unavoidable task if they are to engage in their main work [although it's a criminal waste of resources to have him do that --- that's what IT staff is for] most people would count that as part of their working hours. On the other hand, the same might be said about time spent going between home and work. Very few people enjoy rush hour car traffic or packed subways and it's a necessary requisite for doing their jobs, but I don't believe it's counted as work time on productivity calculations [maybe it should!].

So after pondering a bit more about it, I think your analysis of Roach's comment is right: depending on what definition of "time spent working" you use, computer downtime skews productivity measurements on the opposite direction that he intended, or not at all. Perhaps what he was thinking about was "potential productivity". Computer downtime makes us overestimate the benefits of IT, and therefore the potential output we could achieve, but as we are keeping output fixed (although very hard to measure) in this discussion, potential productivity is not really a factor.

Happiness = Fun, Friends and Food

Yes, this might be the core of the issue: do we include Hw in the denominator for productivity or not? Econometrists and sociologists are likely to give different answers, but I daresay that, if phrased as "what is work and what is fun?", the question will only make sense to a very small portion of the workforce. Although some people - like blogging economists, geek gurus or science fiction writers - are passionate enough about their work to consider it both fun and
life-pervading, I think that even most "knowledge workers" would be very puzzled about the idea of having any trouble determining what is work and what is fun. For them, perhaps a better question would be how impregnable their leisure time is against work-related demands (my gut feeling: "less and less").

At the end of the day, probably ultra-rich billionaires, high-end knowledge workers and walmart serfs work the same number of hours [for a certain definition of working hours], as the same sort of intra-sector competitive pressures affect them all. The crucial difference, of course, is how much they enjoy themselves doing it [aside from how
likely are they to be able to pay for medical treatment, retire at a reasonable age, etc].

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