Multitasking refers to the ability of an individual or machine to perform more than one task, or multiple tasks, at the same time. In the field of human resources, multitasking is a popular term that is often used to describe how busy managers or business practitioners are able to accomplish a growing amount of work in a limited time period. The term was popularized in the late 1990s with the increasing move to a 24-hours-per-day, seven-days-per-week work and service culture experienced in the U.S. The term has grown to define people in their roles as employees, parents, family members, and any number of other roles they perform simultaneously as they try to balance business and pleasure in a limited amount of time.
According to an article in Manufacturing Engineering, in the new world of project teams and multitasking, professionals often find relationships blurring as to the difference between activities inside and outside the organization. The multitasking abilities of both individuals and teams are important as companies stay connected with customers, suppliers, and partners, and as new products and services are continually developed. Multitasking is becoming the norm as the amount of information a manager or professional needs to process increases at a staggering rate.
Supporting this view is Arnold Brown in his article for Across the Board. He believes the phenomenon of multitasking that now pervades the workplace is also apparent in our personal lives. In the twenty-first century businesses are trying to turn employees into what he terms a hybrid of hedgehogs and foxes. Foxes do many things, while hedgehogs can do only one thing, but they do it very well. In organizations there is a drive for efficiency forced on businesses from outside competition. As companies are forced to downsize and reduce the number of layers of staff, the employees left behind are doing more work.
Technology is also creating the ability to leverage the efforts of employees more and more. As organizations use more team-building and decentralized decision-making, people are forced to become both specialists and generalists. Examples of multitasking include traditional grocery stores offering a variety of products and services outside food categories, including banking, catering, and wine; women juggling careers and family; and even people talking on cell phones while driving. The downside of multitasking is the level of stress and pressure on individuals.
Demanding more from machines is another part of the multitasking trend. For example, computers can now commonly perform or execute several programs at the same time, which is a form of multitasking or multiprocessing. In the computer arena, multiprocessing sometimes implies that more than one central processing unit (CPU) is involved. When only one CPU is involved, the computer may switch from one program to another quickly enough to give the appearance of simultaneous execution.
In another example of multitasking machines, people are demanding multitasking gasoline pumps. In addition to dispensing gasoline, new gas pumps are also giving travel directions, current weather reports, and stock quotes via an Internet link. Some pumps even let customers order food from neighborhood restaurants. Given the technologically complex and competitively intense environment in today's business world, the trend toward multitasking is expected to continue, for both individuals and machines.