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Big Offices Are Better

Big Offices Are Better

Big Offices Are Better . . . and other findings from the universe of productivity metrics.

It's pretty common to beat up on IT organisations for one reason or another. Yet when it comes to knowledge worker productivity and effectiveness, some IT people - particularly programmers - are the poster children of knowledge workerdom. In fact, some of the practices employed in IT are considered state of the art in enhancing knowledge work.

IT organisations are among the only knowledge work institutions on earth to measure productivity and processes, reuse assets, work collaboratively across organisations, and experiment widely with new approaches. IT's use of these approaches doesn't necessarily mean that productivity is higher than that of all other knowledge-intensive professions - and, of course, it's hard to compare across different types of work - but I think it's fair to say that IT is doing better than most.

Take measurement, for example. As the cliche goes, if you can't measure IT productivity, you can't manage it. There are two domains in which IT measurement is relatively advanced: programming, and IT processes and capabilities. In programming, some organisations have measured for decades the production of either lines of code or function points, and various researchers have analysed the considerable variance in productivity. These measures aren't perfect, but they have allowed us to begin to understand differences across individuals. How many times have you heard that the best programmer is 10 times as productive as the worst? We may not know exactly how to bring everybody up to that high level, but we at least know the degree of variation - something that lawyers, doctors and (executive) chiefs can't measure nearly as well. By the way, one of my other favourite research findings is that programmers with bigger offices are more productive. Feel free to try that one out on your boss.

The other primary domain of measurement is the assessment of IT processes, particularly software engineering (but also software acquisition, people management and the development of software-intensive products). Thanks to the Software Engineering Institute (SEI) and researcher Watts Humphrey, we have an international standard for the quality of software engineering: the Capability Maturity Models (CMMs). You've probably heard of these five-level models, against which thousands of organisations have been assessed.

CMMs have been enormously influential in the offshore movement of software development to places such as India and China. The fact that there are many organisations certified at the top Level 5 CMM in India has led many companies to send work offshore with confidence (see "The Hidden Costs of Offshore Outsourcing", CIO September). There is no similar global standard for other forms of knowledge work capability, unless you count the ISO 9000 family of standards for manufacturing quality. Of course, the availability of a global standard cuts both ways: It means that knowledge work will flow to where it is best and most cheaply done, and that may well be outside your company or country. But it's a great yardstick if you want to get better.

Then there's asset reuse. IT organisations are among the best of a bad lot in this regard. Knowledge workers generally create knowledge from scratch, rather than modifying or reusing previous efforts. In IT, we've replicated this bad practice in the reuse - or lack thereof - of custom code. Remember when everyone was going to reuse objects from an object library? But it's never really taken off in a big way.

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