A Technological Time Trap

Metcalfe’s Law, a fundamental principle of telecommunications attributed to Ethernet co-inventor Robert Metcalfe, holds that the value of a network grows quadratically with the number of connected users, because the number of connections increases proportionally to the square of the number of nodes: A network of two telephones provides just one connection, whereas a network of 1,000 telephones creates 4.5 million connections and is thus dramatically more valuable.

Yet there is a “dark side” to Metcalfe’s Law for businesspeople, Bain & Company partner Michael C. Mankins writes in the Harvard Business Review, because more and cheaper communication means more of your time spent on the phone, in the inbox, and in meetings. The number of external communications executives receive each year has skyrocketed from a few thousand in the 1980s to tens of thousands today, while the average organization now spends 15 percent of its collective time in meetings. Mankins also references our own findings that the increasing number of people involved in everyday business processes has driven up the amount of time those processes take. Overall, he calculates that when you take out the time sucked up by meetings and communications, most managers only have a few hours a week left for other work.

His bottom line is that while every new office technology is marketed as a productivity booster, if it’s creating more meetings and messages, it may have the opposite effect. Mankins lists the two key questions he asks clients to consider before making a technology investment:

  1. What impact will the new technology have on organizational time? Will the technology actually enable people to do more in less time, or does it merely make work and collaboration easier? Investments that reduce the cost of interactions but do not themselves save time should be viewed skeptically. Unless an organization is highly disciplined in its management of time, the dark side of Metcalfe’s Law will trample whatever benefits the new technology might promise.
  2. Could better rules eliminate the need for further investment? Today, many investments in new technology are essentially workarounds for bad behaviors or poor procedures for sharing information. Were customer, financial and operational information readily available to all, for instance, the need for crowd-sourcing or reconciling data sets would be reduced significantly. Leaders should carefully assess whether to accept a bad behavior as given and invest in new technology to cope with it, or instead change the dysfunctional behavior.

Have you found technology to have this kind of effect in your workplace? What do you do to manage the amount of time you spend on meetings and emails? Write us and let us know.