Rise of the Machines

When it comes to human productivity, it’s time for a new standard of measurement.

Yun Ma

By Yun Ma


There's no better time than the beginning of a new year for employers to contemplate the topic of productivity. Which also makes it the perfect time to contemplate this tidbit of wisdom: "We&'ve become so conditioned by the language of efficiency," writes Tim Jackson, professor of sustainable development at the University of Surrey, in the New York Times. "But there are sectors of the economy where chasing productivity growth doesn't make sense at all. Certain kinds of tasks rely inherently on the allocation of people's time and attention. The caring professions are a good example: medicine, social work, education."

The point isn't that we should be less productive, but when it comes to human productivity, the typical standard of measurement is better suited to machines than people. Technically, productivity is measured by the amount of output delivered per hour of work, but when applied to human employees, this construct can be short-sighted and limiting. As Jackson asks, "What sense does it make to ask our teachers to teach ever bigger classes? Our doctors to treat more and more patients per hour?"

This week on CreditUnions.com, we profile AmeriCU, which introduced dozens of kiosk machines to their members. Kiosks perform virtually all the tasks that a human teller can, but the co-op executives weren’t trying to replace their human employees. Instead, they wanted to free up their employees, highly educated in financial services, to do what they do best: spend time with members discussing more complicated, bigger-picture financial decisions, such as retirement plans or college loans.

Basically, what the executives of AmeriCU tried to do was designate machines the tasks at which they excelled (rote, everyday transactions), and designate human employees with the tasks at which they excelled (intelligent, personalized interactions). Does every member interaction that a service rep performs yield a new mortgage loan or a financial commitment? Probably not. But they are establishing relationships with members, who will eventually return a year, two years, 20 years down the line.

As the new year begins, it’s a good time to think about a different standard for measuring human productivity, one that takes into account the bigger picture. Remember: It’s not always about the number of hours worked, amount of paperwork generated, or number of transactions performed. If it were, well, then there’s probably a machine for that.


Jan. 11, 2013



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