The study of productivity is a staple at any corporate meeting, business class, or workshop. I invite you, in this blog post to take a journey through the history of the study of productivity. We’ll start back in the 17th century to see the origins of productivity and how its influence helped shape the trajectory of economics, language, agriculture, business and technology to this day.
Before we get into how far we’ve come in the study of productivity, let’s first take a look at the broad definition of productivity. We most readily relate productivity to the world of business; however, this term is used in a number of schools of thought. Let’s start by learning about the definition of productivity through various lenses to more deeply relate to its meaning and its importance today.
In the remainder of this article, we will not focus on the ecological definition of productive; although, it is worth noting. In this case, productivity refers to the rate at which a plant is able to incorporate energy in a specific area within a set time. This measure is known as primary productivity. Similar to agriculture, the study of productivity is also used in animal management, known as secondary productivity. This area of study, productivity in ecology, has roots back in 1835. This is important to consider because it helps to frame the true scope of the word productivity.
In relation to the field of language and linguistics, the word productivity is used to indicate the degree to which a native speaker of a language may or may not use a certain grammatical structure. It can also be used to refer to the continued ways in which an existing language, word formations and vocabulary are changed and morphed to describe new ideas. This principle of linguistic is easy to relate to our colloquial definition of productivity, since they both deal with increasing the output using already existing resources.
From an economic standpoint, productivity aims to measure output in relation to its input. For example, inputs can include resources such as labour and capital and outputs can include revenue or physical products. From an economic perspective, the term productivity is used to maximize the use of often limited resources for the greatest output value. Measurements of productivity are often used to predict future growth in a particular industry or even across the whole economy.
Important Turning Points in History
Now that we’ve discovered some of the uses of the word productivity, we will focus on the use of the word in terms of the economy and business. let’s focus on specific time periods that affected the trajectory of productivity and its influence and expansion across many different industries.
The Industrial Revolution was a pivotal time period to move the progression of productivity forward. This was the case for two main reasons, the increase of mechanization, and the introduction of the notion of separating tasks into specific functions. This was possible with the introduction of machines that were able to either replace labor as a whole, or more efficiently help human resources in the production process.
It was at this time where efficiency was gaining importance over craftsmanship. A quick example is that, although one person can make a pen from start to finish, it can often be much more efficient for each part to be made by one specialized machine or person and then put together at the end of the process, similar to an assembly line.
Another influential advancement during this time period that resulted in the increasing of productivity included scientific improvements in agricultural needs such as fertilizations, and livestock management.
The Technological Revolution refers to the period of time between 1870 and 1920, where new innovations and technologies took the places of older processes and solutions. During this time, the rate at which new advancements in technology was rapid which allowed for new technologies to be made across a variety of functions.
The technological revolutions can be characterized by two main ideas. The first one is the interconnectedness of the advancements in technology. This leads me to the second characteristic of the Technological Revolution which was to make a real impact on the rest of the economy. These two notions in combination creates a typical technological revolution.
When we come to the present day, it is often referred to as the Digital Revolution or the “Information and Technology Revolution”. The Digital Revolution is in contrast to previous important advancements in technology and productivity since it is a shift from analogous agriculture and industrial revolution. With the introduction of computing technologies and new modes of communication, this revolution has been instrumental in how we view productivity. According to Carlota Perez, a researcher focused on studies in the idea of the Techno-Economy, the economy has seen a ‘quantum jump’ due to the leap in productivity. Further, as technology becomes more and more accessible for individuals, the digital revolution will continue to make an important impact on how we as a society do business, conduct our leisure activities, and function in our personal lives. Simple examples of this include the introduction of personal computers, televisions, smartphones, and cloud technologies. As more and more of our daily activities are reliant of digital technologies, new products, solutions and other innovation are being developed on a daily basis to keep up. As we continue to move deeper into this Information Technology Revolution, and our society as a whole moves to a “smarter” one, we will surely also see an impact on how we understand productivity.
Although the Digital Revolution has been a positive shift, it is still important to consider some of the potential negative effects it can have both on a societal and an individual level. For instance, personal computers and accessibility to technology, has also said to decrease productivity in some cases. In some/many cases the overload of information can reduce productivity, increase in multitasking can decrease one's attention to detail, personal errands such as email, and social media can be distracting to individuals. In addition, the increased dependency on digital solutions may cause social isolation for some. Another point to consider when thinking about the potential downsides of the Digital Revolution is the concern surrounding privacy, and security.
Productivity Affecting other Industries
The increased use of “productivity” as a buzzword has allowed other industries to take notice. Here’s a brief list of industries that are taking advantage of the study of productivity.
The food industry is one of the biggest in the world so it is inevitable for this industry to incorporate different aspects of productivity as it continues to grow. In terms of the farming and agriculture industry, these were one of the first areas to incorporate measures to increase productivity. This continues today as improvements continue to be made in livestock and produce management.
As we move forward in the history of productivity, and tackle the Industrial and Technological Revolutions, there are ways in which this affected the food industry as well. This trajectory in productivity also helped to spawn the movement of mass factory produced food and food chains.
In sync with factory produced food, we are also seeing the food industry take on the health movement. This is important to consider with food production and productivity because buyers are well educated on the quality of ingredients, eating locally, and freshness. In the coming years the food industry will need to strongly consider how efficiency and quality will work together to deliver a productive industry.
Specifically, I wanted to discuss office design and how it is being influenced by productivity in this section. Our increasing focus on workplace productivity should be reflected in our office designs. For example, a few fairly new principles that are becoming more and more important in office design include: creating specific work zones, lighting strategies, and being deliberate about colours and textures in order to facilitate productivity. Productivity is also affected by office planning such as to what degree an office is open-concept, department focused, or collaborative. Further, in an effort to become more environmentally conscious, we can also link productivity to architectural design in relation to saving space, electricity, and other resources.
From a more finite perspective, we see individuals creating office spaces that are said to boost productivity such as incorporating natural light, having plants around, removing clutter, and including ergonomic furniture.
We touched upon the turn of the Technological Revolution as an integral movement in the increased knowledge of productivity. The technology industry continues to capitalize on the idea of productivity as products and solutions become faster and smarter. As users look for products and solutions that offer means to be more productive, the technology space attempts to satisfy this need. This has created space for great improvements in existing products and solutions as well as development of new digital technologies. This rise in productive technology has shaped the way businesses function today.
In recent years, businesses are taking on a very deliberate approach to learning about and attempting to implement practices that facilitate productivity. As corporate and individual working culture evolves, business owners need to think about how the productivity of a business will also change. Some important changes in corporate culture that affects productivity include work life balance, job security, and individual autonomy.
Work life affects productivity because, now more that than ever, employees want flexibility in their work. For example, many businesses offer flexible start times, end times, and the ability to work from home or remotely if possible. Another change that deals with work life balance is companies being more open about fostering a more lax corporate culture, which can include perks such as a casual dress code, social events, and areas in the office for breaks. How does this affect productivity? It gives employees the space and autonomy to work in ways they feel most comfortable, with the intention that, given this flexibility employees will find the most efficient way to work – one that is crafted specifically for their needs and working style.
As entry into business becomes more and more attainable for the average individual due to reasons such as globalization, minimal monetary investments, and the power of the internet, we are also seeing a shift of productivity from a broader perspective to an individual level.
Coupled with changing philosophies in what it means to be a working professional, productivity is becoming increasingly popular topic of discussion. I am specifically referring to the allure of the side hustle for younger generations. With the economic downfall of 2008 forcing everyone to think critically about additional multiple streams, recent graduates were especially forced to think outside the 9-5 work life. In addition, the side hustle, often with minimal monetary reward, offers other intrinsic rewards such as growing a passion, provides autonomy, and is ever changing. These factors in combination began to shift the meaning and importance of productivity. As a result, working professional began to look to studies in productivity to help create structure in their work life in a new way.
As discussed earlier, the early days of productivity was measured heavily by efficiency and most accurately with output versus input. However, as we’ve learned more about the study of productivity in recent years, we are coming to learn that there is so much more to measuring productivity than efficiency. How do other factors, such as intrinsic motivation, rewards, and perspective affect productivity? If you read a recent blog of ours titled, 6 TED Talks to Boost your Productivity, you’d have seen that there is a lot that can influence productivity. Recent research and testing discussing what factors affect productivity is now creating a shift in how we look at productivity as a whole.
The study of productivity has helped shape a number of industries from a historical perspective, and continues to do so to this day. As we continue to see the growth of existing industries, as well as new fields of studies, it will certainly be an exciting time to see how our learnings on productivity will remain to be a strong influence.
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