The Pursuit of Busyness

We’ve spent the past couple weeks in my MBA class discussing E2.0 technologies (including blogs, wikis, and prediction markets), approaches, and initiatives. One of the most interesting things for me about these classes has been how often students bring up one specific concern: that people who use the new tools heavily —  who post frequently to an internal blog, edit the corporate wiki a lot, or trade heavily in the internal prediction market —  will be perceived as not spending enough time on their ‘real’ jobs.

This is almost the inverse of the concern that Nick Carr brought up soon after the initial E2.0 article came out —  that busy knowledge workers wouldn’t have time for the new technologies. My students felt that knowledge workers who used the technologies a lot would be seen as not busy enough.

The first time one of them voiced this worry I was quite surprised. I felt like I was hearing a 1960s-era Theory X view of corporate life being espoused by one of the young people being trained to lead the organizations of the new millennium. And it seemed strange to me that this would be their philosophy after almost two years of an education designed to shape their perspectives as enlightened business leaders. As this concern came up in class after class, though, I began to suspect that what I was hearing was a reflection not of their philosophies, but of the realities they’d experienced.

Virtually all our MBA students have a few years of work experience before coming to campus, and they work, in large part, in the industries you’d expect — banking, consulting, venture capital and private equity, etc. Companies in these sectors usually have results-oriented corporate cultures, but they also prize effort as well as results. They value hard work, long hours, and the appearance of progress toward bottom-line improvements. This tendency is probably particularly strong in consultancies, given their focus on billable hours.

MBA students who come from these cultures may or may not have adopted for themselves a narrow definition of what constitutes ‘productive’ work, but they certainly had their eyes open in their jobs. They saw who became perceived as a star, and who rose quickly through the ranks. They also saw how the leaders in these organizations perceived and talked about what kinds of contributions were valuable, and what kinds weren’t. 

So I should have been less surprised when my students talked about the negative perceptions associated with E2.0 contributions. They were likely just relating how these contributions would have been seen in their former companies. In environments that value ‘busyness’ enterprise 2.0 enthusiasts can be seen as laggards, goof-offs, and people who don’t have either enough to do or enough initiative to find more real work to do.

Companies that are full of knowledge workers and that have built cultures that value busyness face a potentially sharp dilemma when it comes to E2.0. These companies stand to benefit a great deal if they can build emergent platforms for collaboration, information sharing, and knowledge creation. But they may be in a particularly bad position to build such platforms not because potential contributors are too busy, but because they don’t want to be seen as not busy enough.

And even if the leaders in such companies sincerely want to exploit the new tools and harness the collective intelligence of their people, they might have a tough time convincing the workforce that busyness is no longer the ne plus ultra. Corporate cultures move slowly and with difficulty, and it will take a lot more than a few memos, speeches, and company retreats to convince people that it’s a smart career idea, rather than a poor one, to contribute regularly and earnestly to E2.0 platforms. 

I often look to high-tech companies to observe state-of-the-art work practices. Something about the intensity of both the competition and the war for talent in their industries makes them laboratories for workplace innovations. And even though technology producers face time pressures that are as intense as anyone’s, many of them have not developed cultures of busyness. In fact, some have tried hard to build in the opposite mentality in their employees. Google, for example, gives their engineers ‘20% time‘ – the equivalent of a day a week ‘to pursue projects they’re passionate about.’ According to Google, 20% time has resulted in Google News, Google Suggest, AdSense for Content, Orkut, and the company’s internal prediction market.  From everything I’ve seen and read, Google’s engineers work hard, put in a lot of hours, and are busy, but they aren’t obsessed with busyness —  the need to always appear to be working hard at one’s ‘real’ job. 

I’ll close this post by highlighting the dangers of a busyness obsession via an anecdote about Henry Ford, a corporate leader not often associated with freewheeling approaches and tolerance for inefficiency.

Ford once enlisted an efficiency expert to examine the operation of his company. While his report was generally favorable, the man did express reservations about a particular employee.

"It’s that man down the corridor," he explained. "Every time I go by his office he’s just sitting there with his feet on his desk. He’s wasting your money." "That man," Ford replied, "once had an idea that saved us millions of dollars. At the time, I believe his feet were planted right where they are now."