How do you measure a writer’s productivity?

Perspective — The detail that caught my attention when I read New York Times’ recent story on how our workplace contributes to make us unproductive may also be the most insignificant: It took Katie Hafner over two hours of hard labor to write it. Most — all? — jobs require you to be productive in a way or another. And writers, such as journalists or software programmers, are no exception. But then, how do you measure a writer’s productivity?

For the record, a recent event triggered hot-tempered reactions among French journalists. The established industry magazine L’Usine Nouvelle brutally announced it planned to lay off 25% of its 390-man workforce [fr]. The management team is willing to sell the magazine, and asked AT Kearney to seek ways to increase its profitability. As you surely know already, there are only two ways to increase a firm’s profitability: You can increase its revenues and you can cut its costs. Fully aware of this down-to-earth reality, the consultants recommended that l’Usine Nouvelle should concentrate on selling more advertisement and on increasing its workforce productivity. And, confronted to the complex reality of productivity measurement, AT Kearney introduced an interesting idea: You can measure how productive a journalist is by determining his daily character production rate.

Now, as a rule when it comes to metrics, there’s always a way to measure a phenomenon that will be better than not measuring it at all. Yet, as Albert Einstein once suggested, many of the things you can count, don’t count; Whereas many of the things you can’t count, really count. And arguably, the number of times a journalist presses his keyboard during the day is not exactly the most meaningful thing to count when you want to determine his productivity. But then, what is?

The problem with productivity metrics is that your ultimate productivity criteria is never the one you are measuring. Even in a fast-food restaurant, things can be more complex than expected at first glance: If you count the number of meals your employees produce or serve per hour, then you’ve arguably got a fairly decent measure of how productive they are. Yet, when the ensuing pressure leads your employees to serve meals that are of so poor quality that your customers notice and angrily spread the word around them, then you’re ruining your own business. I’d like to hope l’Usine Nouvelle does not experience a likewise situation with its readers. Yet, just notice how absent the ultimate productivity criteria — i.e. how much value the magazine and its journalists are delivering to their readers — is in the decision process.

On top of that, it is seldom easy — if even possible — to determine which employee within a group is producing more value than another. When you try to measure individual value production, as firms typically do, you are blatantly ignoring the benefits of an entire family of social interactions collectively known as teamwork. It is classic to encounter individuals, such as a sport team’s coach or a manager, who contribute to building a team without being directly productive within it. And more often than not, teams build around a natural leader within itself, in total disrespect for any official organizational chart. In the course of a project, this will typically be the guy who eventually gets layed off on grounds he is not as productive as his colleagues. He is the one who naturally makes himself available to inofficially keep track of the project’s status and of all the surrounding gossip with a neutral — read: unauthoritative — eye. When he’s gone, so is the teamwork.

In the end, despite teamwork-related problems, you want to be measuring how much value an individual writer produces to his readers. Very naturally, you’ll measure this value in terms of “Did readers read the story at all?”, “Was this story useful and/or interesting to the readers?”, “Did the writer’s readers return for more?”, etc., all of which you can measure on a web site. If anything, these criterias are clear indicators of the value an individual writer is delivering to readers and are all more relevant than measuring how many times the writer presses his keyboard during the day.

On top of that, these criterias measure the value that your readers perceive, as opposed to the value that you perceive. This is noteworthy because, in the end, delivering value to your readers does not mean you’re delivering anything valuable or relevant: If your target readers expect and prefer to read junk, don’t be shy and serve them junk! The only thing that counts is the end-user’s perceived value.