Does the productivity of education matter?

We occasionally see reports or thoughts on the productivity of education – but it is a tricky situation to get to grips with … partly because it is so hard to define outputs – and especially effective outputs. 

Does it matter?  Isn’t education something we just have to provide?

Well, it matters.  Just take a look at the investment in education of any advanced country.  Millions or billions of dollars.  If we could improve the productivity of that investment, we could release some of that funding for other purposes – social development, cultural development, better healthcare –  or whatever.

So, next time you see a debate, join in – add your views to the structured discussion necessary to advance thinking on how we address this tricky – but important – issue.

Vertical Links?

There are lots of sites and blogs on the web which purport to be about productivity.  Many of these are about what might be termed ‘personal productivity’ – time management, self-motivation, etc. 

This set me thinking.

Is there a natural connection between national productivity, organisational productivity and personal productivity?

My own view – based solely on my experience, but not on any formal, structured research – is that national productivity could broadly be regarded as the aggregate of organisational productivity, but that organisational productivity has little to do with any aggregate of personal productivity. Organisational productivity is much more a function of the effectiveness of processes, systems and procedures – over which individuals have little control.

So, by all means encourage your employees to manage their time and their own workflow within the limits they do control – but don’t expect that to have a significant impact on the performance of your organisation.

And the secret is ….

I can be as guilty as the next person is hailing specific concepts and practices as being important determinants of higher productivity. 

But we should stop searching for the ‘secret’ – the panacea – and concentrate on the basics.

Productivity is about good organisation, good planning, effective design of facilities, systems and processes, effective motivation of staff and all those other things the management textbooks tell us about.

So, the real ‘secret’ is about doing all those things well in pursuit of a clear and shared organisational mission.

If someone comes offering you a simpler ‘secret’, they are selling you ‘snake oil’.  There are few shortcuts in life.

Don’t Break The Chain!

A personal ‘productivity’ tip sometimes referred to as ‘Seinfeld’s Chain’ after Jerry Seinfeld, the US comedian is a useful reminder of the need to ‘keep at it’.  The story is that, when he started writing, Seinfeld would mark each day he had spent his planned time actually writing by putting a big red cross through that day on a large wall calendar.  After a few days he would have a chain of crosses – and it required him to keep putting in the effort so as not to break the chain.  Even when he had ‘better offers’ or when he felt ill, the motivation to keep the chain going was very strong.

The same approach can be used for anything which requires regular effort and activity – exercise, program coding, learning to play a musical instrument, etc.  it is not one long practice session that makes improvement – it is regular, incremental performance gains resulting from regular action.

The productivity professionals amongst you will recognise that this is the fundamental concept behind kaizen – regular, small improvements leading to a major impact on performance over time.

But it also applies at a more general level.  We all know we should ask ‘Why?’ regularly.

‘Why do we do it like that?’

‘Why do we do it at all?’

‘Why is it done here?’

‘Why is it done like that?’

If we keep asking, we keep coming up with suggestions for change – and improvement.

So, tomorrow make sure you observe some work and ask questions about it … and come up with some (perhaps very) small suggestion for improvement.

Then mark your ‘Why X’ on a calendar and START the chain.

Repeat daily until you have a chain of at least 5 Xs.

Now look at your calendar.  1 working week – 5 improvements.  If you don’t break the chain, that will be 250 in the year  … and a potential transformation of productivity and performance.

Discretionary Efforts

Employees work – and work hard  - for various reasons.

Obviously there are contractual reasons – they take the money and have to ‘put in the hours’.

But above and beyond what they are contracted to, most employees put in ‘discretionary effort’ – over and above the minimum, perhaps because they like what they do, perhaps because they like the company, perhaps because they value being a member of the team they belong to.

Our job, clearly, is to maximise this discretionary effort.  We have to address the motivational factors that ‘persuade’ them to offer more; we have to give them the skills they need; we have to inform them about why things are important, involve them in key decision-making and respect their views. 

Discretionary effort is almost free – we would be stupid not to try and release it.

Gamification (revisited)

Last week I talked about gamification – and whether it could be used to help improve productivity

If you weren’t thinking about it then, I hope you are now – Ambient research suggests that game-based learning will grow from $1.5 billion in 2012 to $2.3 billion in 2017.  This is important.  I am regularly int  touch with productivity centres around the globe who want to educate youngsters about productivity issues - whilst they are still young enough to be positively influenced.  This is part of many national productivity campaigns.

Adding gaming elements to such education might work.

Let’s remind ourselves about what gamification means – and what it doesn’t. 

Asking the learner a series of questions, along with multiple options, is NOT game-based learning. 

Game-based learning is the application of gaming elements to a non-gaming context – such as learning or training … and by gaming elements, we mean such things as:

  1. Challenge
  1. Motivation
  1. Rewards
  1. Feedback

- the elements that ‘hook’ gamers and keep them coming back for more.  Build these elements into your learning and you might just ‘hook’ learners into your learning and their progression … and you might stand a chance of creating a generation informed about productivity before they enter the workplace.


Gamification and Productivity

We’ve heard quite a lot about ‘gamification’ recently – especially in the context of online learning.

I read the term many times before I sought to understand it … so I thought some of you might be in the same boat and would appreciate an executive summary’.

If I’m right (after several minutes of research), gamification refers to taking processes (such as learning) and applying games-related functions like repetition, competition, rewards and recognition to make them more engaging to the participants.

Many industries have had some of these elements for a number of years, but gamification seems to mean taking these things to a new levels and integrating them more thoroughly. Organisations like TripAdvisor which give you credit for reviews you write (and regularly remind you of the number of readers, especially those who ‘liked’ one of your reviews) are ‘gamifying’ their websites.

In productivity terms, it ties up nicely with a number of the tenets of the lean philosophy.  For example, visual management can provide information as the basis of competition between work groups, departments and so on – and as the basis for rewards and recognition programmes.  So, whether you are ready ot go full steam ahead with gamification, it might be worth considering how you can use the functions referred to above to better engage your customers or your employees

It was the right decision

Recently a colleague was bemoaning the fact that he had taken a bad decision. 

When I questioned him about the decision, and about the outcomes, I formed the view that he had taken a ‘correct’ (or sensible) decision given the information he had available at the time.

As an example, consider the decision to make a bid in a game of bridge or make a move in a game of chess.  You make your move based on the experience you have of likely outcomes from the state of the game (or the cards you have been dealt) as it lies when you take the decision.  What happens subsequently will then depend on a number of additional factors – including the relative ability of you and your opponent(s).  You may lose the game.  However, if the same decision has to be made in the future, the likelihood is that you will make it in the same way – unless and until the number of times it turns out to be ‘wrong’ becomes statistically significant.

The same is true in business.  You must not confuse the outcome of a decision with the wisdom of the decision you took.  You must continue to take decisions based on the information you have available (though you might want to find out more if you can) and the experience you have of similar situations.  Then whatever happens, happens.  The outcome might not be favourable because of prevailing conditions – or due to plain chance.  But the decision was still the correct one.

Does Germany need higher wages?

For about 10 years now wage increases in Germany have not kept up with the development of productivity, by a long stretch” said European Employment Commissioner Laszlo Andor in an interview with German newspaper Welt am Sonntag recently 

This, of course, makes Germany highly competitive compared to other European states.

Is this a problem?

Is this unfair?

If you are German, it might not seem like a problem (unless you think that those who have helped create the improved productivity should share in the benefits it brings).

If you are a European, perhaps it matters more fundamentally – a trading imbalance (and a competitive advantage for one state over others) harms the European economy.

Presumably it is difficult to ‘blame’ Germany for its good performance and its ‘prudence’.  We might urge them to take off the brakes and spend a little more …. but, much more importantly, we have to urge other European states to address their own productivity – and ‘fight back’.

Recognising the Counterfactual

When we make changes to (try to) improve productivity, we subsequently measure results and assess impact.  (Or we should if we want to evaluate our own performance and impact.)

However, in many complex situations, we cannot be clear that what we have done has resulted in the changes we observe.  What would have happened if we had not intervened?  This is the ‘counterfactual’.  How do we measure it – so we know the true impact of our changes?  Well, often, of course, we can’t.  But sometimes we can extrapolate from observations we made earlier – and make an informed (and hopefully intelligent) ‘guess’ at what might have happened.  

Sometimes, we might have a ‘parallel’ situation elsewhere we can continue to observe (rather like a ‘control group’).

The important point is to realise that in complex situations,we have to be careful about assuming (or claiming) that all change has resulted from our actions. Otherwise we can over- or under-estimate the impact we have … and subsequent decisions might be based on this imperfect – and incorrect – knowledge.