Information, Technology and Information Worker Productivity

Innovation and Economic Growth

Article Snapshot


Sinan Aral, Erik Brynjolfsson and Marshall Van Alstyne


Information Systems Research, Vol. 23, No. 3, pp. 849-867, Part 2 of 2, 2012


This study considers whether electronic networks allow workers to multitask more effectively. Workers given diverse tasks are more productive when they multitask more, up to a point.

Policy Relevance

At low levels, multitasking improves productivity.

Main Points

  • This study considered work practices, email, and output at a midsize executive recruiting firm.
  • Recruiters must retrieve and understand clients’ needs and identify workers to fill those needs.
    • The speed with which vacancies were filled was a key measure of productivity.
    • Knowledge of diverse social circles is especially important for job placement.
    • Multitasking was measured as the number of projects ongoing per month.
  • Multitasking improves workers’ project output up to a point, after which returns diminish.
    • At high levels, multitasking results in cognitive overload.
    • At low levels, multitasking increases productivity by letting workers smooth out a workload that comes in bursts.
    • The best level of multitasking will differ in different work environments.
  • Information technology increases productivity because it helps workers exchange information.
    • To deal with changes in demand and product variety, firms must be flexible.
    • Flexibility requires workers with diverse knowledge, able to do diverse tasks.
  • In the study, workers handling contacts with diverse knowledge were less productive than average, but more productive when multitasking.
  • A worker’s social networks add to productivity by giving her access to diverse information, but this access has costs, such as time and effort.
  • If the worker needs diverse information to complete diverse tasks, access to the information will increase performance in proportion to the worker’s need.
  • Managers should match the complexity of work inflow and outflow to the complexity of tasks.


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