IT skills more productive than face-to-face contacts

IT skill contributes to productivity more than e-mails, phone calls or face-to-face meetings with clients

It's no surprise workers skilled in using enterprise search systems and other IT tools are more productive than employees with limited computer knowledge.

But the co-author of a newly completed study that examined five years worth of IT usage at a midsize executive recruiting firm was surprised to find evidence that IT skill contributes to productivity more than e-mails, phone calls or face-to-face meetings with clients.

"People say that face-to-face contacts are essential," says Marshall Van Alstyne, an associate professor at Boston University and research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Center for E-Business. In the study, "the database skill was actually more important in terms of completing projects than face-to-face contacts."

Van Alstyne and his MIT colleagues analyzed revenue and completion rates for more than 1,300 projects spanning five years, as well as 10 months worth of e-mail messages and data on workers' self-reported IT skills, IT use and information sharing.

Employees at the headhunting firm Van Alstyne studied use an internal search system and database containing information on current and past projects, the firm's employees, clients and potential candidates.

Workers who use the database effectively were able to efficiently coordinate projects and keep track of people who might not be suitable for current job openings but might be good candidates for future positions, Van Alstyne says.

While database skill was highly correlated with the completion of projects, it's not necessarily the key for generating revenue. In a separate analysis in the same study, Van Alstyne says he found that an employee's social ability is a better predictor of revenue generation than age, gender, education, experience, job level or project difficulty.

With the permission of participants, who were paid $100 each, Van Alstyne and his colleagues analyzed the company's e-mail history to determine the probability that any individual will fall on the shortest path between any two other people. Essentially, they were looking for the communication middlemen who, it turns out, generate the most money.

It's not clear whether building social networks through e-mail leads to productivity, or the other way around, but Alstyne speculates that "people who are better connected get news faster. We find that people who are better connected are aware of new business practices more than other people. We find they have access to more diverse pools of information."

The study, titled "Information, Technology and Information Worker Productivity: Task Level Evidence," was co-authored by Sinan Aral and Erik Brynjolfsson of MIT, and presented last month at the International Conference on Information Systems in Milwaukee.

Other highlights include:

*Heavy users of IT are slower at completing projects. But they are substantially more productive overall because they are better able to work on several projects at once. After a certain point, however, the productivity benefits of multitasking are offset by work overload. "You have too many balls in the air and they get dropped," Van Alstyne says.

*People who send short, focused e-mail messages are more productive than those who write long, rambling e-mails."Unfocused, lengthy e-mail messages incur bigger response delays because people don't bother to respond to them," Van Alstyne says.

*People experienced in searching for information avoid Google. "The more experienced people tended not to go to public access Web pages for their first source of information," Van Alstyne says. "They tended to have specialized sources of knowledge. Those might be people, those might be databases. ... People without experience end up going to Google."

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