As the Chinese curse puts it, we do indeed live in interesting times.
Technologies are converging, new markets are emerging, and the competitive scene has never been more fierce. But despite this, or perhaps because of it, there is one issue that remains uppermost in the minds of senior managers - productivity.
Over the last year or so, I've noticed a change in the way people approach this subject. Until recently, the emphasis was on efficiency - cost cutting, getting more done with fewer resources. But now I often find myself discussing what I call the New Productivity.
The thinking behind the New Productivity is that efficiency is still a necessary element in business, but it's not the whole story. There's a limit to how much cost cutting a company can withstand; if a business is to generate sustainable competitive advantage, it must also consider effectiveness - realising opportunities for growth by making the best use of its assets.
As knowledge is increasingly the power behind today's economies, those assets are usually people - and the skills and knowledge they bring to the workplace. In fact, knowledge is probably the basis of any competitive advantage.
The effective use of knowledge should focus on creating real value, not just increased output. This, in turn, requires us to change from the traditional definition of productivity, where the inputs are labour and capital and the output is volume. The new definition adds knowledge to the basic inputs, and the New Productivity outputs reflect value in terms of new markets, new services, new products, and so on.
This means that improving the way people work and making the most of their intellectual capacity are key parts of the productivity equation.
It is in this area that documents play a vital role. They support business processes, link up people, communicate ideas and act as a source for information use and re-use. Documents are the human interface to knowledge.
This is not just a theory. At Xerox, we have conducted a study into the way we do business. The Xerox value chain starts with planning and technology development, and ends with the delivery and support of a product. It consists of about 350 business processes that weave their way through the organisation.
When we want to determine how to re-engineer these processes and boost their value, we focus on input and output. There are about 3,500 of these, and more than 90 per cent - 3,300 - are paper and digital documents. Documents really are the lifeblood of business.
The crux of the issue centres on how document technologies can help a company improve business by boosting its document performance.
Imaging is one widely available document technology. It focuses on documents as containers. Such systems know little of the content of the documents, but increase efficiency by sending and receiving them faster than is possible with paper.
To some extent this is like the old productivity, which concentrated on volume and speed. I believe that companies will only reap the benefits of the New Productivity with document management technologies that help them work on content. This is because the potential for real added value lies in that content.
Such technologies come in the form of repositories and document bases.
They allow everyone in an organisation to search and share information.
They also gather documents on-the-fly and present them in the way that users want. Such systems allow knowledge to be shared across a business, helping successive generations of workers to build up experience. Because, when we consider the way people work, the document is their network.
David Jones is vice president of marketing and communications at Xerox Professional Document Services.
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