What I Talk About When I Talk About User Outcomes #5 – Productivity vs. Performativity

Ant Party

Productivity, to my mind, is about doing more of what of what you enjoy doing and doing less of that which you don’t. It’s highly context-dependent, although there are some things that work in most situations – as I outline in #uppingyourgame: a practical guide to personal productivity.

What I’m concerned about is a condition just shy of Digital Taylorism, that twisted notion of productivity that Jean-François Lyotard calls ‘performativity’. It’s a cancer in the knowledge economy:

According to Lyotard, postmodernity is characterised by the end of metanarratives. So what legitimates science now? Lyotard’s answer is – performativity. This is what Lyotard calls the “technological criterion” – the most efficient input/output ratio. The technical and technological changes over the last few decades – as well as the development of capitalism – have caused the production of knowledge to become increasingly influenced by a technological model. It was during the industrial revolution, Lyotard suggests, that knowledge entered into the economic equation and became a force for production, but it is in postmodernity that knowledge is becoming the central force for production. Lyotard believes that knowledge is becoming so important an economic factor, in fact, that he suggests that one day wars will be waged over the control of information.

Lyotard calls the change that has taken place in the status of knowledge due to the rise of the performativity criterion the mercantilization of knowledge. In postmodernity, knowledge has become primarily a saleable commodity. Knowledge is produced in order to be sold, and is consumed in order to fuel a new production. According to Lyotard knowledge in postmodernity has largely lost its truth-value, or rather, the production of knowledge is no longer an aspiration to produce truth. Today students no longer ask if something is true, but what use it is to them. (Internet Encylopedia of Philosophy)

The reason that performativity is dangerous is because it strips out all of the enjoyment and self-actualisation that work can bring and reduces it to a commodity. Instead, as Seth Godin often gets across in his books and his blog, work should be hard but a fundamentally creative endeavour. Talented people leave jobs if they’re overly- constrained:

Whoever says artists can’t deal with corporate pressures because they have frail minds, is missing out on the potential the artistic mind has to boost company morale and increase productivity. Most artists would just as soon quit once they become conscious of their exploitation and that is a sign of strength not weakness. (Martin Dansky)

Our working lives, even if we are self-employed, involve both physical contracts (I will do X amount of work for £Y) and unspoken, tacit contracts. The latter can sometimes be pre-judged on a visit to a potential future workplace, but certainly understood in the first few weeks on the job. It’s the old “that’s the way we do things around here” chestnut.

Whether you’re a manager or not, make sure you’re focusing on productivity rather than performativity. Sometimes the internalisation of such rhetoric ends up having more of an effect that external factors. Focus on truth. Focus on creativity. Focus on happiness. Our time here is short.

Image CC BY-NC tarotastic


If you’re looking for help improving user outcomes, head over to Synechism Ltd.

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2 thoughts on “What I Talk About When I Talk About User Outcomes #5 – Productivity vs. Performativity

  1. Doug
    I’ve followed your work with great interest.
    I would suggest that rather than add to the already long list of misunderstood terms associated with knowledge work and performance and productivity, perhaps a clarification – as you’ve done here – with words that everyone thinks they understand would be more appropriate. 
    I did my never-ending dissertation on measuring performance and productivity back in the dark ages when we analyzed our data on boxes of IBM punch cards using a 3 Mb (which was HUGE) IBM 360.
    In the intervening 35 years I’ve learned one thing (I admit to being stubborn) – productivity is the wrong term to use when talking about what knowledge workers do.
    The model and metaphor for productivity is the factory. It has dominated the discuss of what people do, the tools they use and where they work for the past 100 years. Offices are still built on the factory model of production.  But – as you have eloquently stated – the means of “production” is no longer under the control of the employer but is in the  hands and minds of the employee. I would argue the very idea of production confuses things.
    Performance on the other hand is measurable, more familiar and relates better to what people actually do.

    This may seem like a semantic argument, If so, I apologize.

    Thanks for your contributions to the body of knowledge.

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