Response to “Technology’s Productivity Paradox”, Itself a Review of Forrester®’s A Crisis of Attention: Technology, Productivity, and Flow

This is a response to a Globe & Mail article by Harvey Schachter, “Technology’s productivity paradox”, last updated Monday, Sep. 08 2014, 2:23 PM EDT. That article is itself a response to a recent Forrester® report:

A Crisis Of Attention: Technology, Productivity, And Flow
Using The Science Of Knowledge Work To Restore Flow To The Workplace
(July 14, 2014, by David K. Johnson with Josh Bernoff, Christopher Voce, Elizabeth Ryckewaert, Heather Belanger, Thayer Frechette)

To address the problems that are alluded to in the G&M article and Forrester® abstract, one needs to adequately specify the requirements of cognitive productivity. This is where most solutions fail.

In Part 1 of my book, Cognitive Productivity: Using Knowledge to Become Profoundly Effective, I’ve characterized the challenges and opportunities facing knowledge workers. Here are some of the major categories of challenges we face:

  1. Technological challenges. For example, the main applications we all use to process knowledge are merely designed for skimming and familiarization, not for delving and developing effectiveness. PDF readers, for instance, still do not intrinsically support inner tagging! In Cognitive Productivity, I provide tips for working around these limitations.
  2. Psychological challenges. For example, we are subject to cognitive biases and illusions, such as the belief that we will remember and apply what we have read.
  3. Organizational challenges. For example, few companies have regular reading groups where knowledge workers share their knowledge. Professional training rarely deals with the core problems of cognitive productivity.
  4. Cultural challenges. Most knowledge workers are not aware of helpful concepts from cognitive science, discussed in Cognitive Productivity. For example, the concept of mindware, proposed by David Perkins (Harvard) is very potent. Keith Stanovich (at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto) and I (at Simon Fraser University) have been promoting this concept.[Footnote 1]

The Globe & Mail article is correct to emphasize mastery as a key knowledge worker concern. Hopefully the report also addresses the more general concept of effectiveness. The psychological research on mastery stresses deliberate practice. However, knowledge workers don’t tend to have systematic ways to practice. Nor do they tend to use software to practice. In fact, there is very little research on how knowledge workers practice. Research on deliberate practice focuses mainly on expertise in music, sports and chess.

I went to great lengths in Cognitive Productivity to show how principles of deliberate practice could be applied to knowledge work. I developed the concept of productive practice. The term “productive ” here stands for a number of things, such as:

  1. To introduce practice into knowledge workers’ already busy lives, practice needs to be efficient and effective.
  2. Practice needs to be performed in such a way as to produce the “mindware”, such as long-term working memory.

The concept of flow, alluded to in the G&M article and the report’s abstract, is very fashionable. However, as I argued in chapter 3 of Cognitive Productivity, it has very little explanatory power. Effectance is a more useful concept.

I haven’t read the Forrester® report yet, so I can’t comment on it. $US 500 is quite steep for a report on this subject, given (a) the likelihood that the report satisfactorily specifies and resolves the relevant requirements; (b) the large number of people to whom the report may be relevant if it does indeed adequately address (a). Having said that, the report seems to be pertinent to our concerns.

Prospective readers of that report might also be interested in the older, but still relevant book by Schön, The Reflective Practitioner, which I describe in chapter 4 of Cognitive Productivity.

The book Cognitive Productivity: Using Knowledge to Become Profoundly Effective is available on Leanpub and comes with a 100% money back guarantee, and can be read in a PDF reader, iBooks, Kindle and other ebook software. Leanpub is a Vancouver-based ebook store.

I also offer organizational workshops on these subjects. Recently, I presented a workshop on productive practice to faculty at MacEwan University.


Footnote 1: Our definition of the term mindware predates and is different from Andy Clark’s use of the term.


Beaudoin, L. P. (2013). Cognitive Productivity: Using Knowledge to Become Profoundly Effective. Pitt Meadows, BC: CogZest.

Perkins, D. (1995). Outsmarting IQ: The emerging science of learnable intelligence. New York, NY: Free Press.

Stanovich, K. (2011). Rationality and the reflective mind. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Stanovich, K. E. (2009). What intelligence tests miss: The psychology of rational thought. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

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Luc P. Beaudoin

Head of CogZest. Author of Cognitive Productivity . Cognitive productivity consultant and public speaker. Adjunct Professor of Education, Simon Fraser University Co-founder of CogSci Apps Corp. See About Me for more information.

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