Do bill by the hour?


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Sam Ladner's presentation from NXNEi: how billing by the hour actually bends time.

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  • I’m going to be brief with this presentation, because I think this is more of a conversation than a presentation. I have done quite a bit of research on the effects of tracking time and I’m happy to share those articles with you if you’d like. But today I’m going to provide simply a few thought starters about the notion of time, about selling it, and about using technological tools to track it.
  • I’m going to start with this guy. We all know who this is. We know that Einstein argued that time was transformed by speed. Specifically, we know from our physics classes of the concept of “time dilation.” Einstein posited that as you approach the speed of light, time itself slows down. You age more slowly yet, theoretically, you don’t experience this slowing of time cognitively. So you could be on a spaceship, going the speed of light for what you think is 3 years, only to return to Earth to find your child having grown up with children of their own. Einstein’s theory taught us that time is not a fixed thing; it can be transformed by both velocity and gravity.
  • If we can believe Einstein, it’s conceivable that we can also believe this guy. Marx also tells us something about how things transform, but not with velocity or gravity but through commerce. Marx argued that a thing fundamentally changes when it is bought and sold. Take, for example, a chair. If there is no market, no exchange for the chair, it is valuable because you can sit on it, place things on it, perhaps even sleep on it. But as soon as you sell this chair, you change its nature. Its value is no longer the experience of sitting in the chair, but how much money the chair can be sold for. Apply this logic to the sale of time. Your time is valuable because it is the joy of reading to your children, it is the healthy feeling you get from exercising. But when you sell time, you transform its value into how much money can it earn. Billable hours are the quintessential embodiment of this transformation. An hour spent on editing a client presentation? One billable hour, however much that is. spent with an inspiring colleague? Zero. You may argue you can choose to view time this way, or choose not to. But my point is simple: time can be transformed depending on how you view it.
  • This point is made very clear by the distinctly unclear 1931 painting: The Persistence of Memory. Salvador Dali was attempting to show us with this painting that time is not experienced in rational clock-like ways. Time is transformed inside our minds, in our dreams but also in our conscious mind. Things that we believe to be fixed – like time – are actually limp and malleable. Time can be transformed, Dali is telling us, into something we can scarcely recognize. Indeed, sociologists first looked to the Industrial Revolution to see the enormous transformative effects of time-keeping on the experience of time. First town clocks, then clocks on the factory floor, and finally clocks on each of our wrists changed our agrarian notion of time. It was approximate at best. It was tied to the sun and the moon and the ebb and flow of wildlife and crops. We did not “keep time” much less track it. Time before clocks was an entirely emergent experience. The introduction of clocks and their clock-ness changed time. We know knew time precisely, even if we couldn’t cognitively appreciate it. The ticking of the clock replaced the gradual, soft movement of the sun. Clock-time is a rational form of time.Eventually we had the “efficiency expert” arrive at factories with their stop watches and clipboards. They arranged work to be as precise as the second hands on the clock. Why did they do this? Because “time is money.” Time became transformed. Bent. Changed. When we came to buy and sell it.
  • So we’ve been living with clocks for centuries now. But anyone know a design agency that uses clocks to track time? No, instead we use sophisticated things like Time Control here to track time. Unlike a simple stop watch, digital tools like these can immediately combine precise measures of time with other digital bits, such as employee, project code, task, skill used, profitability, etc. Now we can immediately calculate how much money some kinds of time earn. And we do. We continually adjust and re-adjust. And design firms aren’t the only ones, of course. Billable hours is a term that lawyers used initially. We know that that model is breaking because clients themselves see that one hour spent fixing a mistake is billed at the same rate as one hour providing strategic advice. These tools reveal time to us as exactly the same, just like the chair is revealed through its price, so is time. Time is bland in this model, low fidelity representation of the actual experience.This kind of time tracking makes some kinds of time appear more valuable than others. For example, “non billable” staff have time that is “not as valuable.” I could talk more about these patterns I found in my research, but one in particular stuck out for me. When time is tracked, particularly tracked digitally, then domestic time is at the bottom of this hierarchy of time. Story time? Worth zero. But is it?
  • This is a snapshot from the Canadian fee guide for dentists. Notice the variables they included in how they calculate the fees. I’m particularly interested in the notion of “responsibility factor,” which is another way of saying “status of the profession.” Dentists have a profession and so do lawyers. They are professionally certified to have exclusive rights to perform certain work. Interaction designers, industrial designers, graphic designers, design strategists and managers, design researchers – none of them have exclusive rights over any type of particular work. In my last article in Interactions magazine, I argue that this is a serious gap at least for interaction designers.If we professionalize, we may see ourselves as more than simply time, but perhaps as time spent as professionals.
  • Do bill by the hour?

    1. 1. The Transformation of Time<br />Presentation to NXNEi<br />June 16, 2010<br />Sam Ladner, PhD<br />