Twitter, conference calling and the Jevons paradox

There are many fascinating blogs out there on the subject of business efficiency and I have to praise one of them – the nice people at the Dachis Group – by way of stealing their idea.

The blog explains the premise of Jevons paradox, named after William Stanley Jevons in the picture above. It states that, as we find more efficient ways of using a resource, we end up using more rather than less. The example quoted is coal: the more efficient steam engines became, the more people were impelled to mine coal from the ground to fire these increasingly desirable machines. Thus the amount of coal used went up, not down, despite the efficiency gains.

And where is the link to Twitter, I hear you ask… Attention is also a finite resource, and tools such as Twitter seek to make us more efficient in our use of our limited attention. It uses a shorter message format, forcing us to streamline our information. The Dachis blog also cites instant messaging and wikis as ways of improving the efficiency with which attention is used. But – the net effect is that we have less time in the day. We have used up more of our attention on those same tasks.

But here at Powwownow, we think there is a straightforward explanation. If you want to be more efficient, plan ahead. Social media addicts spend more time online than others even though they would claim it is a more efficient way of interacting. They simply interact with more people when they don’t really need to.

Here at Powwownow it is our business to encourage people to have meetings over the phone or online instead of travelling. There is an efficiency/productivity angle there. But it is negated if you end up having a lot of trivial meetings when you don’t really need them. If the first meeting reaches no conclusion you may end up having several subsequent meetings, and the efficiency is lost.

But plan ahead. Come to the meeting prepared. Chair the meeting well. Have a proper agenda. Insist on follow-up actions. Do all these things and the productivity gain will stick.

It’s true that, when meetings are this easy, it is tempting to use that efficiency more often than you need to. But plan ahead, and you can beat the Jevons paradox.

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