Multitasking: the Uncertain Impact of Technology on Knowledge Workers and Managers

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Multitasking: the Uncertain Impact of Technology on
Knowledge Workers and Managers
Frank Bannister and Dan Remenyi
Trinity College, Dublin
Abstract: While the productivity paradox has now been officially pronounced dead, the argument and the evidence for this assertion are both at a macroeconomic level. What has been less closely examined is the microeconomic impact of recent developments in ICT on the productivity of office and knowledge workers. There is an assumption, readily seen in many advertisements for mobile technology, that multi-tasking, WiFi connected laptops, Blackberrys, smart phones and so on are good for business and make people more effective and productive. This may be true some of the time and there is some (albeit limited) research which supports claims that these technologies increase productivity. However there are also emerging concerns that, in certain environments, these technologies may actually reduce productivity in both the short and the long term. This paper examines this problem and research to date and proposes a framework for further investigation of this phenomenon.

Keywords: multitasking, multicommunication, productivity, effectiveness, efficiency, ICT evaluation. 1. Introduction: Implicit assumptions
1.1 A multitasking world
In October 2007 a video entitled “A Vision of Today’s Students” was posted on Youtube1. The video includes a series of views of students in a contemporary lecture theatre. As the camera turns to each student in turn, he or she holds up a card or a laptop showing a personal message such as “I spend three and a half hours a day on-line” or “I will read 8 books this year”. One such card simply says “I am a Multi-tasker”. In another video in the same vein, a black and white photograph of an old fashioned classroom from early in the last century is shown. The accompanying text argues that the type of learning depicted was designed for people who would spend their lives working in a factory on a production line. A clear subtext in both of these videos (and many others readily found on the Internet) is that today’s students will be working in a multicareer, multitasking world and that schools and universities need to re-invent their pedagogy in order to prepare them for this.

There are two aspects to the views proffered in these videos. First, it is implied that multitasking in the classroom with multiple media, computer enabled self and group learning is a better form of pedagogy than the traditional teaching approach where the entire class is required to focus on and attempt to absorb some of what the teacher is saying. Second, computer enabled self and group learning will develop young people’s multitasking skills and that these are the skills they will need in today’s and tomorrow’s workplaces. These ideas reflect the view that multitasking is not only a trend in the workplace, but the assumption that multitasking is a better and/or more effective way of working than more traditional single-task-focused forms of activity.

This transition is readily visible within the computing era. Forty years ago green screens and dumb terminals tended to restrict those office or knowledge workers fortunate enough to have access to a computer at the time to a single task. The concepts of scientific management and work design proposed by Taylor (2003) back in the 1920s, which involved training workers in discrete tasks and supervising those tasks carefully, were adapted for the computer age. By the mid 1980s however, graphical user interfaces, through the metaphor of the desk, and later web browsers, facilitated multitasking in a variety of ways from having multiple windows open on screen at once to hyper linking and instant messaging. Several recent technologies including SMS texting, social networks and chat rooms have further facilitated this type of workplace behaviour. Many if not the majority of office staff now work with their...
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