Productivity: another perspective

August 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

For nearly a decade my productivity was measured in billable hours. Electronic timers on my computer screen would tick away, accounting for my waking hours. A computer programme and anonymous officer would churn out weekly and monthly statistics of my busyness, which management would scrutinise at length. My productivity was determined by the number of deals I was managing, negotiation meetings I was juggling and contract drafts I was turning…

Nowadays the measures of my productivity would be very different and pretty inscrutable… if, of course, anybody were to measure my productivity at all!

Simple weights and measures go some way to assessing my productivity, but only a very little. Six dozen first early potatoes, two colanders of gooseberries, several pounds of tomatoes to date (despite the appalling weather!), seven small but incredibly potent bulbs of home-grown garlic… Although I am logging our harvest yields, the numbers hardly reflect how productive my days have been.

More preserves for the larder

Jam jars are another possible measuring instrument. With a pound of fruit, a similar amount of sugar and a spare hour I boil up a large jar of greengage jam, a delicious topping for toasted sourdough or fresh baguette. A productive hour in anybody’s book but how can a single jar measure several months of tasty weekend breakfasts or the happy childhood memories that greengage jam conjures up?

How well do any of the jars in the larder reflect my industriousness? Four jars of bitter orange marmalade and a pound of greengage jam all made with fruit from The Creaky Shed; two jars of gooseberry chutney from home-grown berries; half a dozen jars of preserve from foraged brambles… In each case fruit and energy – resources in management terms – have been transformed into condiments but are the two jars of gooseberry chutney evidence of greater or lesser productivity than half a dozen jars of bramble preserve?

And then there are the invisible outputs!

Garlic and shallot harvest 2012

This season I trialed garlic. It costs pennies in the shop so my motivation was hardly economic. As garlic grows quite happily in most of the UK, it is non-sensical to import bland garlic from China by the tonne. So last autumn eight cloves went into a corner of my raised beds. Despite the appalling weather, weeks of rain and barely a full day of sun, I dug up seven small but incredibly potent bulbs a fortnight ago. A small return you may think? Hardly worth the effort?

Of course, I harvested much more than just the bulbs. My foray into garlic growing produced some valuable lessons. Next season I shall be planting garlic next to the rose bushes and along the broad bean plot to keep aphids at bay, freeing up valuable growing space in the process. I shall also know to look out for the garlic flower buds next summer. Rather than recycling them onto the compost heap, I shall pick the scapes young to enliven stir-fries and warm salads and encourage the plants to focus all their energy into plumper bulbs. Two crops from one plant and the knowledge and confidence that comes with hands-on learning: how do you log these outputs in any management system?

The inscrutable measures of my industriousness do not only apply to the garden and the kitchen. They also hold true in my studies, my fledgling millinery business, in every cardigan or pair of socks I knit, in each garden tool I make out of recycled materials… These days my productivity is calculated in part in the goods I produce myself – and doubly so if I have grown or scavenged the constituent parts – but mostly in the skills I acquire, pleasure I derive, human contact I enjoy and knowledge or enthusiasm I share along the way. To conventional economists, wedded to ‘productivity’ and ‘growth’, this may be an anathema but after years of having my productivity relegated to an anonymous statistic, I am enjoying industry that is edible, useful and real (even when intangible)… and  fun!

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