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Parkinson’s Law in a Digital World

Not too long ago I posted a blog paralleling Gresham’s Law in economics to issues in digital communication. Well, there’s another principle of economics I see applying to our brave, new digital world: the one propounded (with tongue firmly in cheek) by C. Northcote Parkinson in the November 19,1955 issue of The Economist.

Parkinson’s Law states that, “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” After years spent in the British Civil Service, the economist was pointing out the way bureaucracies tend to expand and spread regardless of whether the actual work to be accomplished grows as well. When he wrote this, of course, the digital computer was only nine years old, there were fewer than 20 installed mainframes, and personal computers were the stuff of science fiction. Hell… Bill Gates was only three weeks old at the time. And it was the advent of the PC that began to turn Parkinson’s Law on its head.

Those of us old enough to remember the early days – way back in the 1980s – can recall promises of how the efficiencies made possible by personal computing were supposed to help us be more productive, providing each of us with much more leisure time. As it turns out, this wasn’t true for each of us, just some of us – and they got more leisure time than they may have wanted. direitonovo¬†

First it was the support jobs that began to disappear (anyone out there remember typing and steno pools?). Then we learned that when you increase individual productivity, work tends to gravitate toward those who do the best job. This didn’t just fill in their newly expanded capacity, it also made those who were less productive expendable.

Since then, we have seen the arrival of PDAs, the Internet, cell phones, and now smart phones… all conspiring to make us more and more productive, with less and less of that precious, promised leisure time.

Once upon a time the mark of a successful executive was the absence of tools and instrumentation (e.g., a typewriter). A desk telephone and an intercom to summon the loyal secretary was all the field equipment that was needed… or desired. There is a sublime irony in contrasting that with the busy executive of today, often identified by the number of state-of-the-art electronic devices at his or her fingertips, and the ability to juggle work and multi-task through each.

Parkinson’s Law suggested that a workload tends to become diluted to fill the available time as resources grow. The digital-age inverse is that the time available expands to accommodate the amount of work that our digital tools make it possible to accomplish. The effect this will have on us as individuals and a culture is hard to predict. Will it create psychological and relationship problems for those who become 24/7 workers, or will it simply become the norm? Will the divide between the “haves” and the “have-nots” widen as their respective realities continue to diverge? Will the job skills that each new generation of workers develops at the beginning of their careers remain relevant over the course of a lifetime?

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