Do we need to rethink productivity in organisations?

Written by Tim Baker on 21 August 2013

How do you best go about increase organisational performance and productivity? It is a question that we are all interested in as trainers and learning professionals. 

Let's consider the traditional view of performance enhancement. Conventional thinking is this: By increasing the individual output of employees, you consequently increase organisational output.  For example, if I can get Fred to do 10 per cent more work in the same amount of time and we can duplicate this effort across the organisation, we'll significantly increase organisational productivity.  This perspective has been around since the birth of industry. 

It should be acknowledged that this approach works well when we refer to tangible things such as sales; that is, if we can get each salesperson to sell 10 per cent more product we'll increase our revenues. In these situations where we have quantifiable outcomes, this approach seems logical. However, this view of productivity is difficult to apply in complex, intangible working arrangements. 

Now consider a modern perspective of productivity which has important implications for learning. For a start, in most workplaces where the work people do is interrelated with other functions and processes, we can't apply the same logic. In other words, modern organisations comprise complex relationships between a number of stakeholders within and without the organisation. The core issue in terms of productivity is how these variables interact. This is what we refer to as Systems Thinking. 

Systems thinking is the process of understanding how things, regarded as systems, influence one another within a whole. In nature, systems thinking examples include ecosystems in which various elements such as air, water, movement, plants, and animals work together to survive or perish. In organisations, systems consist of people, structures, and processes that work together to make an organisation healthy or unhealthy. 

In terms of problem solving, systems thinking considers problems and challenges such as enhanced productivity as parts of an overall system, rather than a specific part. Problems are not considered in isolation. It is acknowledged that the component parts of a system can best be understood in the context of relationships with each other and with other systems, rather than in isolation.

The vast majority of learning and development programmes are designed to enhance individual efficiency and effectiveness. Most programmes are therefore based on the tradition view of performance. Technical and non-technical training programmes are designed and inflicted on people to help them improve their performance either directly via improved technical skills or indirectly via personal development.  The explosion of personal development programmes over the past 30 years is based on the assumption that by improving the person, you indirectly develop their capacity to do their organisational work more productively.

The implications of this new school of thought is that learning professionals need to take a more systemic view of their learning interventions and the environment . This broader perspective can take several forms. First, it means that we ought to be building bridges rather than erecting fences. By this I mean engaging in more cross-functional and project-based learning interventions and less work around creating team identities. Second, it means that we should be assessing behaviour on the basis of the greater good. In other words, people's productivity ought to be measured on its capacity to advance the strategic direction of the organisation. Third, we need to engage in more problem-based learning interventions. Problem-centred learning - the poor cousin of technical- and personal development-centred learning - considers the interdependencies between people, processes and systems. 

About the author
Dr Tim Baker is an international consultant, managing director of WINNERS AT WORK and author of The 8 Values of Highly Productive Workplace Cultures. He can be contacted via

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