Monday, November 3, 2008

Computer Age Workers Suffer Digital Fatigue - Can OR Help?

The October/November Issue of Scientific American Mind magazine highlights the increasing digital fatigue we are facing as a result of always being plugged into technology.

According to a study conducted by the article's authors, our neural circuitry is actually rewired as we become more computer savvy. Internet-naive subjects, after only five consecutive days of internet use (one hour/day), had already (unconsciously, of course) rewired their brains to match those of the computer-savvy subjects in the study.

While the prospect of adapting our brains to optimize our use of the internet may sound exciting, the authors warn that the computer age has plunged us into a state of "continuous partial attention" - which they describe as keeping tabs on everything, while never truly focusing on anything.

This can result, according to the authors, in a state of "techno-brain burnout", where people place their brain in a heightened state of stress by paying continuous partial attention to anything and everything. Because our brains were not built to sustain this level of monitoring for such extended periods of time, this "techno-brain burnout" is threatening to become an epidemic.

While these heightened stress levels can have short-term productivity benefits, they are proving to be significant hindrances to medium-long term productivity, due to worker fatigue and inability to concentrate.

So where does OR come in? Well, let's review the characteristics of this vexing problem to the computer age, with workers who:
  • Have too much to do, too little time
  • Are overwhelmed by incoming stimuli
  • Fatigued and drained
Perhaps an old school approach - from the early days of scientific management - could be the right prescription.

Our old friend Frank Gilbreth, father of motion study, on his second day on the job as a bricklayer, questioned why he was being taught several different methods for laying bricks. So Frank developed motion and fatigue study, and created a process for laying bricks that was vastly more efficient than the processes currently in place.

In fact, Frank's new method increased productivity by nearly 200%, while simultaneously reducing worker fatigue. Here's a nice two-minute overview of Frank's bricklaying study from YouTube - a nice refresher course if it's been awhile:

It seems that computer age workers could greatly benefit from motion study analysis - and who better to deliver it than OR practitioners?

If you walked into a factory, and saw everyone on the assembly line improvising and doing their job any way they pleased, without any knowledge of best practices or recommended techniques, wouldn't you be stunned? Yet to this point in time, this is how the computer age workforce operates.

Time management and productivity experts have been at the forefront of efforts to tackle these problems, but their recommendations are usually fairly general, and without quantification. While advice such as "don't check email first thing in the morning" may indeed be worth practicing, eventually, we should be able to help guide specific individuals and workers to their optimal level of productivity.

And if that isn't ripe for OR, I don't know what is.

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