Study finds success in IT-savvy workers

Computer-literate employees yield more profits and complete more projects for their companies, according to a study co-authored by a Boston University School of Management professor.

Professor Marshall Van Alstyne reported that office workers proficient in information technology are more productive than workers who struggle with computers.

“[Information technology] dramatically improves multi-tasking,” Van Alstyne, an information economics professor, said. “Heavier users of IT juggle more simultaneous projects. [Simultaneous] projects get divided attention, but more gets completed in a year.”

Van Alstyne’s study included data he and two Massachusetts Institute of Technology professors compiled over a period of five years at a headhunting executive recruiting firm. Using computer programs to monitor accounting records and surveys and conducting interviews with current employees, the study’s authors measured the individual productivity of the firm’s workers.

“We successfully managed to measure white-collar productivity,” Van Alstyne said. “This has proven notoriously difficult in the past and is one reason why research has never been previously conducted at the individual level.”

The study, initially released in February 2006, was re-released last December and received awards at several conferences that showcase information technology and social networking. The second version, titled, “Information Technology and Information Worker Productivity: Task Level Evidence,” won Best Paper at the International Conference on Information Systems in early December.

Although the study noted the importance of computer-literate employees in the workplace, a sociology professor said she worries that interactions in person will be overlooked as communications methods shift toward technology.

“Sociological studies show that face-to-face interaction is generally supplemented by, rather than replaced with, computer-mediated communication,” professor Laurel Smith-Doerr said. “I may now use email rather than telephone to set up a lunch date with a colleague, but we still get together in person.”

Smith-Doerr said although computer skills are vital in the workplace, they will never replace human interaction.

Van Alstyne’s paper was one of many factors that influenced BU’s computer science department to make changes to better tailor the program to students’ needs, said computer science chairman Azer Bestavros.

“In an institution such as BU, undergraduate degree programs do not have enough room to allow for a proper introduction of the various requisite knowledge, particularly in mathematics and computer science, that enable students to make informed choices,” Bestavros said.

Bestavros said he has several suggestions to better coordinate the discipline of computer science with other disciplines at BU. He suggested creating a “meta concentration,” which would allow incoming students to discover the computer science field by taking courses in many areas and then choosing the area best-suited to their interests.

“Classes are now incorporating several of the principles in IT management training,” Van Alstyne said. “Corporations and future employers will, and already are, incorporating these kinds of issues into their strategic planning.”

Smith-Doerr teaches a technology and society course encouraging discussion on moving into an IT-driven world.

“Computer and social skills are both important, but the computer-literate person who can negotiate social relationships is more likely to have a chance to use his or her technical prowess,” she said.

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