What Is Productivity?

Source: Microsoft.

Source: Microsoft.

What is “productivity”? This is an important question for me, given that I’m working to turn this blog from one that’s a bit scattershot to one that’s laser-focused on how technology can make us more productive. It’s also important for Microsoft, given that they’re making a transition of their own from a company offering proprietary solutions running on Microsoft platforms to a “productivity company” offering solutions running on every platform.

The term “productivity” is used in a number of ways in the technology industry. For example, we use terms like “production machine” to designate those devices that we really use and can’t do without. “Productivity software” applies to applications like Microsoft’s Office suite that are used in businesses to do “work,” and tends to be perceived as dry and boring. Productivity, in this context, is what people do who work in little cubicles in large organizations. Productivity is for the “enterprise,” it’s what Microsoft does when it licenses Office to GE. It’s the old, stodgy version of Microsoft as depicted in the iconic “Mac vs. PC” commercials that helped Apple in its comeback.

Source: imgarcade.com.

Source: imgarcade.com.

Is Productivity a Corporate Thing?
WinBeta tackled the question in their pieced titled “Can Azure, Office 365 and SharePoint sell Windows 10 for Microsoft alone?” and brushed up against this definition:

Yet, the focus is on ‘productivity’; in the world of business, even this word is difficult to define; is it pragmatism? Is this something more? Can pragmatism along be exciting?

WinBeta asserts in their post that Microsoft’s Windows 10 strategy (so far, of course) is aimed at the corporate market to the detriment of the consumer market. For them, then, it seems that “productivity” is best delineated along the lines of the market being served. Productivity is for the business user, and presumably therefore everything else is for the consumer.

In what individual does the concept of productivity induce intense salivating? Where is the businessman obsessed with having the ability to run complex excel cel edits on the go? Who is the literal personification of Apple’s definition of a PC user?

Chasing this beige, corporate dream may pay dividends in the end, all of this is up in the air. However the unrelenting focus on the business user, while neglecting the needs of the consumer market may serve to marginalize Microsoft further as its competitors rush to take advantage of this down time.

I don’t find this a legitimate definition of productivity because, simply put, I think we can be productive in both our professional and personal lives. A parent is no less “productive” when he manages his child’s schedule than is a businesswoman when she’s using Excel to generate a market forecast. An individual who’s focused on improving health is productive when tracking caloric intake and exercise. A teacher is productive when creating a lesson plan and grading papers. A scientist is productive when analyzing statistics and creating a cure for cancer.

Is Productivity for Everyone?
Productivity, therefore, isn’t just for the cold “beige, corporate” world. It can’t so easily be delineated by role, nor by whether a task is for money or personal satisfaction. It’s for all of us in all of our varying roles–producer, consumer, parent, spouse, friend. What then is the distinctive aspect of “productivity” that can help us wrap our hands around it?

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella defines it this way:

At our core, Microsoft is the productivity and platform company for the mobile-first and cloud-first world. We will reinvent productivity to empower every person and every organization on the planet to do more and achieve more.

We think about productivity for people, teams and the business processes of entire organizations as one interconnected digital substrate. We also think about interconnected platforms for individuals, IT and developers. This comprehensive view enables us to solve the more complex, nuanced and real-world day-to-day challenges in an increasingly digital world. It also opens the door to massive growth opportunity – technology spend as a total percentage of GDP will grow with the digitization of nearly everything in life and work.


We have a rich heritage and a unique capability around building productivity experiences and platforms. We help people get stuff done. Stuff like term papers, recipes and budgets. Stuff like chatting with friends and family across the world. Stuff like painting, writing poetry and expressing ideas. Stuff like running a Formula 1 racing team or keeping an entire city running. Stuff like building a game with a spark of your imagination and remixing it with the world. And stuff like helping build a vaccine for HIV, and giving a voice to the voiceless.

For Microsoft, then, the definition of productivity is “getting things done” and “achiev(ing) more.” That makes some sense to me on a very fundamental level, and I made a similar distinction myself awhile back when considering the distinction then being drawn between “productivity tablets” (e.g., those running Windows 8.1) and “consumption tablets” (e.g., those running iOS and Android).

Source: Microsoft.

Source: Microsoft.

Is It the Outcome That Matters?

In that piece, I distinguished between how people use their tablets, for “production” and “consumption.” That is, tablets can be used to create content, or consume it (or both, of course). But for me, in that piece at least, the notion of productivity was based on whether the task being performed was accomplishing something, and that’s not entirely wrong, either.

Certainly, watching a video on Netflix isn’t a productivity task, unless you’re a movie reviewer or screenplay writer. For most people, watching a movie is a leisure activity. It’s passive. Reading an ebook, playing a game, and often browsing the Web are also passive, consumptive tasks. They’re not time-wasters, mind you–leisure and recreation are invaluable endeavors. We’d not live long without taking breaks.

But they’re just not productive tasks. We’re not creating anything when we engage in them. We’re not organizing our lives or improving our communications or enhancing our health (again, outside of the inherent value of rest and relaxation). We’re consuming something that was produced by someone else rather than expending effort ourselves to produce or improve something.

Productivity, then, means creating something new, or organizing things to our greater benefit. There’s crossover; Nadella hinted at it when he wrote “Stuff like chatting with friends and family across the world.” We can watch a movie with a friend located in another city and build a relationship. That seems productive, too, in that it actively enhances our social lives.

We’re on a bit of a a slippery slope here, because every gamer in the world would argue that they’re being productive when they achieve a new level. We could find ourselves finagling our way into calling everything “productivty” if we’re not careful. But, outside of the sense of satisfaction from playing the game, what has that new level accomplished? I’m going to argue that it’s accomplished little that’s not ephemeral and entirely internal to the gamer. Perhaps something that’s productive also has to be out there in the world to quality.

I Know It When I See It?

In any case, identifying precisely what’s “productivity” is more difficult than it first appears. It becomes almost a thing where we throw up our hands and say “I know it when I see it.” Thinking of my own activities, I know when I’m being productive and when I’m not. Basically, I’m productive when I feel like I’ve accomplished something, and I’m not productive when I don’t. That’s yet another aspect of productivity that also matters–we all spend time doing tasks that end up being wastes of time, even though we go into them with the best of intentions.

This touches on the final aspect of “productivity” that I’m going to cover in this piece. Specifically, productivity is also very individualistic. One person might be able to do their job on a tablet, for example, while others never could. I’ve seen the debate innumerable times on the Internet around whether tablets can be productivity devices. Some people say they can’t, because they can’t do their jobs completely on an iOS or Android tablet. Others say they can. The simple answer, of course, is that such tablets can be productive for some people and not for others.

If you’re a blogger who works in the WordPress Web interface or via a WordPress app, then you could do all of your work on an iPad. You could use any number of tools (such as OneNote, as I’m doing right now) to write the raw text, then copy it into a post, and embed images as easily on a tablet as on a full-fledged notebook. On the other hand, in my previous jobs as a marketing professional, I created complex Office documents with embedded objects like Excel spreadsheets that I could edit in-place in Word. That absolutely requires the full Office suite running on a desktop-class operating system.

And so in these examples, a tablet is a productivity tool for one person and not for another. Choose a different task and the situation could be reversed for those same people, which is probably why most people who own tablets also own a Windows or OS X machine. The reality might be that for most people, complete productivity might still require a wide range of technology.

Source: Microsoft.

Source: Microsoft.

Just Get Things Done!

That’s what makes Microsoft’s strategy so brilliant–and highly complex. They’re turning themselves into the “productivity company” as a way of focusing their efforts, but they’re not limiting themselves to any particular definition or application. Certainly, they recognize that productivity cuts across all of our various roles, from office worker to professional to parent to teacher. They’re providing tools that anyone can use in a variety of ways, and tying them all together. One can debate where the Xbox fits in their strategy, but with Kinect and running Windows 10 even the Xbox can be turned into a productivity machine if we expand our concept of “productivity” beyond crunching numbers in a cubicle.

In the end, Microsoft seems to agree:

In the world of technology, the word productivity has often been narrowly defined – usually referring to work that involves a document, spreadsheet, presentation, or to do list. But in its broader historical context it’s a word that has always had a bigger meaning – as a way to describe or measure what a person, team, organization or company accomplishes relative to the effort they put in. In other words, productivity is simply a way of thinking about how well we use our time.

And, as we all know, that time is increasingly scarce. That’s not a statement about work, it’s a statement about life. And that’s why we’ve set our sights on a much bigger goal: Helping people make the most of the moments that matter to them. Any moment, at work, home or on the move.

That’s why we’re not just in the “productivity business.” We’re in the business of helping people be more productive.

In the final analysis, then, productivity is whatever we do to “get things done.” We know it when we see it, and when we do it. It’s a definition that’s as wide as the lives we lead, and that’s just fine. It makes focusing my own efforts a little more difficult, but it’s also a lot more fun (yes, nothing says being productive can’t be fun) and gives me much more content to work with. It also creates an incredibly complicated task for Microsoft in pulling it all together, but covering that complexity should be fun, as well.



  1. […] = Enterprise? I wrote in my piece “What is Productivity?” that Microsoft isn’t focusing solely on businesses in its transformation. And I think […]

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