Technology

Why Isn’t New Technology Making Us More Productive?

Digital automation has eliminated 10 million phone calls that Anthem’s call centers would have fielded, estimated Rajeev Ronanki, president of digital platforms.

Anthem, which is changing its corporate name next month to Elevance Health, is not cutting its customer service staff. But the role of those workers and how their performance is measured have changed. The traditional metric of performance in call centers is “call-handle time,” and the less time per call, the better. Anthem now wants its customer service staff to resolve problems for callers with one call, whenever possible, rather than passing them to another department.

Many of its call center agents have received additional training to become what Anthem calls “care navigators.” Measurements of their performance now include issues resolved and consumer satisfaction surveys. By that broader set of measures, Mr. Ronanki said, the company’s contact agents are 30 percent to 40 percent more productive. Adding skills and redesigning work, he said, are as important as improving technology.

“Building the technical capability alone is just the beginning,” Mr. Ronanki said.

It takes time for new technologies to spread and for people to figure how to best use them. For example, the electric motor, which was introduced in the 1880s, did not generate discernible productivity gains until the 1920s, when the mass-production assembly line reorganized work around the technology.

The personal computer revolution took off in the 1980s. But it was not until the second half of the 1990s that economic productivity really surged, as those machines became cheaper, more powerful and connected to the internet.

The 1990s revival was helped by a leap in technology investment by companies and by venture capitalists, especially in internet and web start-ups. Similarly, in the past decade software spending in the United States has more than doubled to $385 billion, as companies invest to digitize their operations, the research firm IDC reported.


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