Reclaiming Knowledge Work’s Lost Productivity

In the mid-20th Century, Peter Drucker coined the term “knowledge worker” and said that productivity of the knowledge worker would be “the biggest of the 21st Century management challenges.” He was right. In fact, knowledge workers and manual workers are no longer exclusive–technology has blurred the lines of work such that even workers loading product onto conveyer belts are no longer exempt from being classified as knowledge workers.

Without technology and the onslaught of the need to process information, productivity was easier to measure (both inputs and outputs), since the work was easier to see. In the typical factory setting, workers come to work, see the work in front of them, and get it done. At the end of the day, one can see how much product is produced. But how does one measure the value of a report or a meeting that has no tangible product? Not only is knowledge work productivity more difficult to measure, but productivity has also decreased because of knowledge work.

One of the reasons for lowered productivity in knowledge work is the greater need for critical thinking skills; skills that were not in demand in the early 20th Century. These skills include the ability to make decisions about what needs to be done with the paperwork on our desks, the ability to understand and monitor the outcomes and required actions to complete our tasks successfully, and the ability to follow a schedule that allows us the freedom to prioritize our work as suits both our personal working style and our employer’s requirements. Depending on whether we execute these skills efficiently determines whether we are productive.

In addtion to the need for critical thinking skills and efficient execution of individual work plans, organizations can no longer selectively disseminate information to their workers if they expect to improve organizational productivity. They need to share everything so that all employees can glean what is useful for their work. For example, Dow Chemical shares its day sales and inventory numbers with everybody in the company. Dow recognizes that if people understand how their actions contribute or detract from business results, they will do a better job (source: Chris Webber, The Economist Group).

Improving an organization’s productivity is no longer a selective process and it certainly cannot be done in silos. It must involve the entire organization. Here are five things you can do right now to improve your organization’s productivity:

  1. Share all company information. The organizations’ executives can no longer hide information behind the “need to know.” Everyone in the organization needs to know what’s going on in the organization. If people are kept in the dark, then your company is limiting its productivity.
  2. Eliminate deep hierarchical structures. They serve no one well in the organization, least of all those at the top.
  3. Involve all employees in decision making. It may be exactly the insights of the mail room clerk that can help your company move its strategic plan forward.
  4. Use technology to improve information sharing and collaboration. Upgrade your records and information systems so that everyone is able to access information readily. Implement workflow systems to enable everyone to be more productive.
  5. Use annual performance reviews not only to set individual goals, but also to find out from each employee how well they think the company is doing. This should be a time of joint goal setting and improvement for the coming year.

At the end of the day, productivity doesn’t happen by itself. The thinking that goes into knowledge work can provide powerful outcomes for an organization. But this can only occur if the organization recognizes and supports the potential in its workers. It can be a productive win-win.