Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Productivity & IT - US trumps Europe

I’m in the USA this week – part business part pleasure – so its a good time to think about some of the differences between the US and Europe and the UK specifically. On this occasion I’m given food for though by a study from the London School of Economics Centre for Economic performance on growth in the USA and Europe.

The full report is available from the Office of National Statistics for free, and it has been reported in the FT (10 October 2005) – I’m sure it has been reported elsewhere too. I’ve only had time to read the FT story but I’ll try and read the full report in the next few days.

The report is interesting because it looked at the difference in productivity growth between Europe and the USA in the last ten years. It appears that the USA is increasing productivity faster than Europe. But the really interesting thing is: US companies in Europe are increasing productivity inline with the US rather than Europe. This implies it is management practices not local culture that is having an effect.

It goes on to attribute this to two reasons. First US companies make better use of IT. This might come as a shock, after all, US and European companies have access to the same IT resources – we can all buy the same Sun servers and SAP software – so it can’t be the IT itself it must be the way you use it.

(Actually, there is another shock here, there has been some doubt in the past that IT has actually delivered increased productivity at all but we’ll leave that for another day – take a look at material by Erik Brynjolfsson and others if this interests you.)

The second reason is something quite different: HR practises. Seems US companies promote their best workers faster than European companies and get rid of under-performers faster too. In effect they are rewarding the performers and filtering out the also-rans.

I can relate these ideas to what I’ve seen in US and European companies. So, where does this leave us?

Well the good news is there is gold in IT. The bad news is you can’t just “add IT” and make your problems go away, you need active management too.

If this comes as a surprise to you then good. Think about it. If this doesn’t come as a surprise to you then good, you now have the evidence.

Either way we have to ask: what are we going to do about it?