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A 1965 sketch by Gordon Moore. Source: Intel.

A 1965 sketch by Gordon Moore. Source: Intel.

I’ve been thinking about the connection between technology evolution and jobs, and could not let a historical milestone go by without comment. The often-quoted, even venerated, Moore’s Law turned 50 in April.

In 1965, Gordon Moore predicted that we would double the number of transistors on a silicon chip each passing year, which would, in turn, double computing power, while keeping costs fairly static. Moore’s prediction proved to be prescient and has held true ever since. This underlying advance in processing capability has enabled the dramatic transformation of all sectors of the economy, and all factors of our lives, through digital technology.

Thomas L. Friedman, of “The World is Flat” fame, calls it “the most remarkable example ever of sustained exponential growth of technology.” In a recent New York Times article, he quotes the CEO of Intel: “You can see the power of Moore’s Law at work. Intel’s latest chip offers 3,500 times more performance, is 90,000 times more energy efficient and about 60,000 times lower cost than its first generation microchip.”

This is an extraordinary story for sure, one without historical parallels, as we learned from the book “The Second Machine Age” by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, which I discuss in another piece. But—and I hope that you were expecting a but—it seems that while Moore’s Law still holds true, its impact, the significance of this hardware improvement, is beginning to wane.

The problem is that the technology can only be as impactful as the person operating it. While the theoretical capabilities of technology can continue to increase exponentially—enabled by the latest developments such as 3D processors, solid state drives, in-memory software, and shared massive processing power of the cloud and so on—workers aren’t as easily upgradable; their productivity not adhering to Moore’s Law.

Workers aren’t as easily upgradable; their productivity not adhering to Moore’s Law.

Software engineers and developers may be up on the latest capabilities of their systems. They have a strong professional incentive to be “current,” a status that many will maintain through participation in events such as Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference. In contrast, the average worker is often two or three versions behind. The pace of technology change is greater than the users’ ability to absorb it. This gap appears to be growing as technology cycles are shorter, and new capabilities are ever more complex, connected, and for some mind-boggling.

Not surprisingly, a large majority of workers (90%) rate themselves at a “basic” level of competence with their everyday tools. According to a recent study, ”digital inefficiency” with common functions such as document management, email, messaging and search represents the equivalent of wasting up to two hours per day. This can reduce the productivity gains that the introduction of technology was predicated upon. In the worst case, it can even have a negative effect as productivity is reduced by the lack of proficiency with the new environment.

There can be qualitative consequences also, especially where the lack of proficiency is visible to the customer. I don’t know about you, but I prefer people serving me to be very competent in their field. When I see them struggle with technology, I’m less likely to return. Put another way, would you go to a doctor or fly with a pilot who rated themselves as only basically competent in their jobs?

It seems that many workers are often unaware of the capabilities that they have at their disposal, leaving productivity to suffer because their basic-level approaches neglect many new or advanced features and functionality. With increased awareness, inevitably comes greater usage. This is both rewarding, as workers find new ways to get things done, and frustrating, as they lack the ability to navigate through uncharted territory. Assisting employees can be burdensome for the IT professionals, intent on implementing the next release, but supporting users to adopt new technology as an important safety net.

Ultimately, the most effective way to prevent workers from being the bottleneck on technological progress is through consistent and sustained skills development. Because technology changes so frequently, the one-and-done school of traditional IT training is no longer suitable. Employees, too, must be continuously updated.

Only by addressing these elements do organizations truly realize the benefits of this growth in computing power. As workers become more aware of the capabilities—as they use them, as they solve issues and explore further, as they build their skills and confidence—the barriers to technology adoption are removed. New, innovative technologies achieve their promise, resulting in increases in productivity of up to 100 percent.

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