Software Metrics

The Four Types of Productivity

As Tom Cagley explains at his blog, productivity is one of the most fundamental metrics—the ratio of output per unit of input. There are different types of productivity though, and most of them apply to IT. Cagley discusses each type so that we can become more mindful of how we are producing work.

The Four of a Kind

  1. Labor productivity
  2. Capital productivity
  3. Material productivity
  4. Total factor productivity (TFP)

Labor productivity is the traditional per-person output measure. As it pertains to software development, it would be how much time and effort a person spends to build and execute code of a given level of quality. Capital productivity is basically the measure of how well stuff makes itself useful. In other words, it is the fast computers and comfy chairs that enable excellent software development. Material productivity regards natural resource consumption, of which there is really not a lot to consider in software development. Lastly, TFP plainly encompasses all the measurable productivity that the other three do not address. Cagley provides examples of TFP such as “changes in general knowledge” and the use of specific management techniques.

In his estimation, labor productivity tends to be overemphasized at the expense of the others. Considerations of labor productivity are sometimes even used in a flawed effort to get a pulse on the other types of productivity:

For example, if all employees get new computers (capital) while the organization adopts a new team approach to software development (TFP) and productivity increases it will be difficult to determine the impact of each change if we only measure the proxy of labor productivity. This is not an esoteric discussion if productivity improvement was used to justify either of the changes.

Labor, capital, and TFP (and material, where it may apply) must be considered separately in software development. Trying to change more than one variable at a time and hoping to develop clear insights from it is a fool’s errand. Use good judgement.

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