September 07, 2003

Email and Service-Sector Productivity

Morgan Stanley's Stephen Roach is an oppressed, exploited, and alienated laborer. His work-activity is not an expression of his species-being as a member of a free society of associated producers, but instead a mind-numbingly and boring accomodation to the requirements of the poor user interface that his technologies of information possess. For Stephen Roach, it is things that are in the saddle and ride mankind:

Morgan Stanley: I spent the first 45 minutes of my workday fighting the mindless edicts of the technology gods. I always remind myself not to take it personally.

What caused these 45 wasted minutes? Two things, Stephen Roach says:

cleaning out the excesses of my e-mail inbox and changing the passcode to my voicemail. Over the years I have become quite adept at performing these tasks, but there’s no getting around the time-intensive nature of the response. And yet these tasks occur with increasing frequency. In a world of information overload, e-mail inboxes hit their limit in shorter and shorter timeframes and the proliferation of passcodes has no end in sight.

My reaction is that Stephen Roach is ill-served by his company's IT staff. Changing your voicemail password should take five minutes, tops, even if you don't remember which keys to press to short-circuit the long menu descriptions. Cleaning out your email inbox... (a) sort email by author and transfer the mail from people you want to talk to to your "Action needed..." mailbox, (b) sort all email by subject, (c) block-delete spam that has gotten past your spam filter, (d) block-delete message threads that you'd like to read but don't have time, (e) down-arrow through the rest, skimming the first paragraphs, transferring those you want to reply to or think about to the "Action Needed..." mailbox, and (f) block-delete the rest. Ten minutes, maximum, unless you've let it pile up for a month. Reading, thinking about, and responding to the email you actually want to read, think about, and respond to will take far longer, of course--but that's real work, not submitting to the mindless edicts of the technology gods. The overwhelming impression I have is that Stephen Roach's company badly needs an IT staff who can train and support the efficient handling of information.

Even so, it's worth taking a step back and thinking about just how efficient our current email system is--even with having to spend 45 minutes cleaning junk out of email inboxes because of poor IT support. Suppose you had to try to cope with your email messages landing on your desk as interdepartmental memos or U.S. mail? It would not be pretty.

Posted by DeLong at September 7, 2003 12:29 PM | TrackBack


At the risk of giving offense if Roach is a friend of yours, he sounds like yet another clueless user. 45 minutes my ass. He probably didn't mention the time he spent opening and then deleting emails from adversting lists he subscribes to like Amazon, Travelocity and ebay ("But it is useful information!". Throw in the silly emails from family and friends who forward the latest joke/cartoon they've seen and then all the junk he gets by signing up for contests using his real email address... You get the picture.

Methinks Roach is whining. He probably has about 8 minutes of real problem and 37 minutes of goofing off and to cover for the latter, he whinges vigorously about the former.

Semi-full disclosure: I've done tech support for morons like Roach (I know your dirty little computing secrets) and a VP of IT training at Morgan Stanley is a friend of mine. I should give him a heads up that Roach is dissing him.


"You fell victim to one of the
classic blunders. The most famous
is "Never get involved in a land
war in Asia." But only slightly
less well known is this: "Never
go in against your sysadmin when
death is on the line"

From The Princess Bride. Or something like that.

Posted by: DES on September 7, 2003 05:25 PM

Brad, I think you are missing a more subtle point here.
There are some people who ust love the idea of multi-tasking. They are thrilled that their job involves swtching every 5 minutes from one email to another to a phone message to a person walking through the door.
There are also people who like to focus intently on whatever it is they feel their primary job to be (perhaps reading financial reports, perhaps writing code, whatever). Such people (I am one, Roach may be one) are VERY VERY poorly served by the new environment. I personally over the last few years saw my programming productivity simply shot to bits because I simply could not work on a complex piece of code for more than 30 minutes without something interrupting me. Beyond these little five minute interruptions there is a larger scale of multi-tasking that is forced upon people by down-sizing as they are expected to take up admin tasks of one sort or another which pop up once a week or so.

I think this is a larger problem than is realized because those who become managers, pretty much by definition, have a temperament that revels in multi-tasking and just cannot perceive how much anguish it causes those who want to do one thing and do it well, before moving on to the next thing.

The bottom line is; does it really make sense to halve the productivity of a $100K/yr or more engineer or analyst or whatever, to have them perform, poorly, tasks that could be performed more cheaply by people expressly hired for that task? Do we really want to alienate from work those few gifted individuals society throws up that can obsessively concentrate on a problem for hours, days, weeks, years, till they find a solution?

My guess is that, like neglecting infrastructure, the results of this sort of work environment will take their time to show up, but the end results are not pretty.

Posted by: Maynard Handley on September 7, 2003 06:11 PM
Post a comment