Can shiny objects syndrome plug technology's productivity paradox?

New technologies struggle to prove their value -- but they make workers a lot happier in their jobs.

boring meeting
A lack of shiny objects... (Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Technology keeps improving, but it doesn't appear to improve worker productivity. It's a paradox that the computer industry would love to solve because it would boost sales tremendously.

There's little reason to upgrade from older technologies if you cannot show that the capital investments will provide a multi-year boost to the bottom line. This is partly why many companies have been delaying their technology investments.

Claire Brown, professor of economics and director of the Center for Work, Technology and Society at the University of California at Berkeley, says that economists have trouble measuring the right data. "We can measure costs very well but when we look for productivity gains we can't find them in the data."

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Brown was speaking on a recent panel organized by Unisys to announce the results of a 12-country survey that collected information from more than 12,000 workers about technology use at their companies.

The workers in the Unisys study self-assessed their employer as a leader or a laggard in technology. Those working at technology laggards were 450 percent more likely to be thinking about quitting, and they reported 750 percent more frustration with their job compared with those at technology leaders.

These results are backed up by a recent digital workplace study from Aruba that polled more than 7,000 workers in 15 countries. It found that staff at technology leaders "were more likely to have strong job satisfaction, and more likely to be positive about their work-life balance than the "Digital Laggards" (those who have less access to workplace technology)."

If productivity data is hard to quantify, the costs of an unhappy workforce are easy to measure.

It takes about nine months to replace a worker and become productive. Add in headhunter fees and costs from lost productivity -- technology laggards are forced to carry the massive expenses of continually replacing unhappy workers.

These reports from Unisys and Aruba show that tech investments offer the potential for greater productivity and the bonus of a more engaged workforce that stays in their jobs. This could be the answer to the tech productivity paradox.

But new technologies have also been criticized as inducing "shiny object syndrome" -- investing in the latest craze and what looks good rather than investing in utility.

However, if shiny object syndrome creates a positive and ongoing psychological effect on a workforce, it's a benefit with tremendously high value. A value that deserves to be counted in tech investment decisions.

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An unexplained finding in the Unisys study was that technology leaders had a higher fear of losing their jobs.

But this could be because they fear losing a job they love -- compared with the frustration of a technology laggard's job that they were thinking of quitting anyway.

These surveys show that investments in new technologies have a new and growing role as important investments in human resources -- every company's most important asset and the source of all of its future wealth.

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