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Efficient vs Effective

Wednesday, October 1, 2014
by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

Government is constantly advised towards greater efficiency. I think we need to become far more conscious of the word "efficient."

Efficiency is the hallmark of the industrial era and modern capitalism. It is the great boon of the division and specialization of labour, of economies of scale, and its pursuit has done wonders for our standards of living. Efficiency is the only reasonable approach in a world of finite resources, and in the era of knowledge work, we must largely discard it to actually achieve it.

Largely. If we can spend a few extra minutes finding a better way to do something more efficiently, such that we save more in the long run than we invested in the improvement, we should. For example, making an extra phone call and finding a place that will print ads for 10 cents per page, rather than 12. Or taking time to learn a faster way of designing the ad layout. XKCD conveniently mapped that cost/benefit analysis for us:



However, it's impossible to run the entire ad campaign efficiently (regardless of research suggesting that the efficacy of online ad campaigns is still frequently a mystery). Because the entire campaign is driven by actions taken long before it starts, before we start poring over data from A/B testing. Can we run it effectively? Yes. But the knowledge of the people running it, the relationships between them, the mentor that encouraged the copywriter to stay in their job? We can't capture that complex system well enough to navigate it efficiently.

A colleague can efficiently, at 60 wpm, type us an email warning us of a major problem coming down the pike. But it might not be efficient in the context of their mandate, and we certainly didn't worry about efficiency building the relationship with that person. Coffee meetings aren't, at the individual level, very efficient.

But at the organizational level, coffee might be the killer app. Even 12-person lunch tables are more effective for software developers than 4-person ones, in that they lead to less compatibility issues in the code.

Even the potential of the digital era to feed us the information we're looking for algorithmically is increasingly driven by human relationships: what the people we interact with are reading, who are we following, and who can we trust to act as amplifiers and filters.

ConocoPhillips reports that they've saved $100 million by encouraging employees to help each other solve problems. At the macro level, it's clearly "efficient". At the individual level, hardly.

We can't take an efficient approach to knowledge work. It's too complex. Instead, we have to trust ourselves and rationally apply macro-level knowledge, such as that collaboration works for organizations. Even when it's hard to see how it serves the pressing needs of the individuals within the system.

The factory-driven logic of efficiency may still apply to tasks and processes, but even there the logic is messier than you'd think. What if a theoretically less efficient system gets more use because it better matches the culture of a community? Or because it has buy-in, having been developed locally?

Digital interactions with government are an easy efficiency win. Filling out health care paperwork online is a far cheaper, quicker transaction for both parties, but what if the visit to the office creates the opportunity to discuss an emerging health concern? Expensive in-person contact with health care professionals is often worth it, in keeping people from needing even more expensive hospital stays later. In a few years we may be working on how to strategically get people through government doors at key intervals to bolster a digital by default strategy.

Knowledge work is a relational game, and we need to tread the language of efficiency cautiously. When combined with inevitable oversimplification and incentives designed for parts, not wholes, efficiency just isn't effective.