As Knowledge Management professionals our job is the help organizations leverage their knowledge. Our attention is focused on the knowledge worker and our major task is to devise ways for those knowledge workers to share the knowledge they have gained with their peers. In other blog posts I have suggested a second task KM professionals should be engaged in, that is, helping organizations address the complex issues they face - those that are not amenable to technical or improvement solutions. In this post I propose a third task for knowledge managers, helping organizations improve knowledge worker productivity. I have drawn heavily on the ideas of Peter Drucker, who invented the term knowledge worker and who has been the most prolific and insightful voice in describing how knowledge work should be managed.
Knowledge workers now comprise 40% of the American workforce. According to Morgan Stanley economist, Stephen Roach, knowledge workers are the most rapidly growing segment of white-collar employment. Within the last seven years knowledge worker employment growth has averaged 3.5% per year making their productivity vital to the competiveness of both organizations and the country.
To discuss knowledge worker productivity, it is necessary to first define knowledge workers and to differentiate how they do their work from other kinds of workers. Although there are many possible definitions, I will use Drucker’s simple, but profound definition, “A knowledge worker knows more about how to do the task he has responsibility for than does his boss.” Drucker provides several easily recognized examples of this phenomenon:
The meteorologist on an air base, who is vastly inferior in rank to the airbase commander, knows more about weather forecasting than the air base commander does.
An engineer servicing a customer does not know more about the product than the engineering manager does, but she does know more about the customer and the customer’s needs.
The hospital administrator does not know how to do clinical testing so cannot tell the pathologist in the medical lab what good testing is or how it should be done.
These examples illustrate the first striking difference between knowledge workers and other types of workers. Before knowledge workers became such a critical part of the workforce, bosses knew how to do the tasks of those they supervised, having done the same tasks, often little changed, only a few years before. Knowledge workers, however, need to acquire new knowledge every 4-5 years or else they become obsolete. In the knowledge age, bosses, even if they have done the same task in the past, quickly fall behind.
The second difference is in the nature of work itself. Some work can be clearly laid out in a step-by-step procedure. The skill may be difficult to learn, but there is no question about what to do next. Prescribed steps work very well in an environment where work is largely visible, standalone, and unchanging. Knowledge work, however, is invisible, interdependent and constantly changing. Knowledge workers, whether they are scientists, engineers, marketers, accountants or administrators, must continuously read the situation in front of them and then, based on that interpretation, determine the appropriate next action to take. For example, a physical therapist must ascertain what steps to take with a patient depending upon his assessment of the patient’s condition as well as how the patient is responding to therapy. By necessity a physical therapist must be responsible for his own contribution to a patient’s health. Likewise an intelligence analyst must use her own judgment about the veracity of a source as well as her judgment about the importance of the source’s information to her analysis. The quality of her analytic report is based on that judgment. The second difference then, is the nature of the work, that is, using one’s own judgment versus a clearly defined procedure.
The third difference is that knowledge workers “own the means of production,” to use Drucker’s phrase. That is, the knowledge they possess is in their minds so when they leave the organization the means of production leaves with them. They view that knowledge as their personal possession. According to a study by Constant, Kiesler and Sproull, knowledge workers make a major distinction between tangible information such as written documents or computer programs and intangible information that is learned through experience. They would share a computer program or a document with others because they view it as the property of the organization. But knowledge gained from experience, which reflects on their identity and self worth, is shared only when they receive some personal benefit in return. That benefit could be the admiration of peers, the appreciation of a friend they have helped out or the satisfaction felt from paying back a colleague who once helped them. Knowledge workers view it as their discretion to share the knowledge gained through the hard work of learning from their own experience, or not.
Knowledge workers are not dependent on the organization as are industrial workers whose experience is useful only in the place where it was acquired - it is not portable. Conversely knowledge workers’ knowledge is portable. A petroleum engineer at Chevron is equally valuable to Exxon, perhaps even more so because he or she brings new perspective to difficult issues. If knowledge workers are not dependent on the organization they work for, neither are they independent because, whether full time employees, contract workers, or consultants, they require an organization to do their work. Their status then is interdependent. Knowledge workers function more like an associate than a subordinate which makes their interaction with supervisors closer to a conversation than receiving orders. In other words, each must fully share what they know and listen with a willingness to learn from the other. As Boris Groysberg and Michael Slind say in their new book, Talk, Inc. “Traditional corporate communication must give way to a process that is more dynamic and more sophisticated. Most important, that process must be conversational.”
It is only within the last 10 years that much of the growth in knowledge workers has occurred. This has left most managers unprepared for interacting with this new kind of worker. The contrasts outlined above, show that managing a knowledge worker needs to be very different from the command and control method of management that most organizations currently employ. Not only does command and control not improve knowledge worker productivity, it too often does the opposite - it makes knowledge workers less productive.
My own research on organizational conversations has provided numerous examples of the way command and control management reduces knowledge worker productivity. For example, in the intelligence industry, reports written by analysts typically are reviewed and revised by several supervisors who know much less about the topic than does the analyst who wrote the report – yet by the time analytic reports are published they have, too often, been modified in a way that no longer represents the analysts’ findings. In sales organizations I see situations where sales representatives are told by their bosses to modify customers’ requirements even though the sales people know full well that the changes will result in dissatisfied customers. In healthcare, nurses, who have a great deal of knowledge about how their work could be more effective and productive, have no way to communicate that knowledge to hospital administrators. In the telecommunications industry software analysts follow processes, defined by their bosses, which add little value and serve to unnecessarily delay their work. To be productive knowledge workers have to be responsible for their own work processes.
Taking responsibility for work processes is one of three issues that help to make knowledge workers more productive. The others are, 2) knowledge workers require continuous learning as well as the on-going opportunity to teach what they know to others, and 3) knowledge workers need to be treated as an asset rather than a cost. In this post I address on the first issue and will write about issues two and three in an up-coming post.
Taking Responsibility for Knowledge Worker Productivity
Knowledge workers themselves must take the responsibility for their productivity because they are the only ones who know what productive work should look like. But that does not mean they should have carte blanche to do what ever they want. Rather, to increase their productivity, knowledge workers must design for themselves a system that includes clarifying, 1) what the task of their work is, and 2) what quality looks like in accomplishing that task and how to determine whether, both as individuals and as a group they are meeting that level of quality. Further, they must take responsibility for monitoring the quality of each individual and of the group. Although managers cannot do this task for the knowledge workers, managers can make use of the results in terms of allocating resources and working to remove organizational obstacles that reduce productivity.
Identifying the Task
The first requirement to increase knowledge worker productivity is to bring together knowledge workers that are doing a specific type of job to ask, “What is your task? What should it be? What should you be expected to contribute? and What hampers you in doing your task that should be eliminated?” (Drucker, 1999) The question requires an extended conversation among those who do the work. It is a mistake to leaving it to HR to administer a survey or conduct interviews in order to find the answers. The answer must be worked out through the give and take of conversation among the knowledge workers themselves. Knowledge workers possess both the ideas and the analytic skills to do their own sensemaking. Moreover, if those who will have to live with the results do the sensemaking themselves, they are more likely to be satisfied and supportive of the results than if someone else hands them an answer. By participating in the conversation, they will know, not only what the result was, but also the reasoning that led to that result. Even if some members of the group are not in complete agreement with the outcome, they will understand why that outcome was reached.
The question, “What is your task?” may, at first glance, seem axiomatic, but it is not. The question is not, “What does the organization expect of us?” rather “As the only people who understand our work, what do we think our task should be?”
Once understanding is reached about the task, management can assign the non-value added tasks to workers who have less skill and therefore lower salaries. Drucker describes one such situation. “Nurses in a major hospital were asked the above questions [about their tasks]. They were sharply divided as to what their task was, with one group saying "patient care" and another saying "satisfying the physicians.” However, they were in complete agreement on the things that made them unproductive. They called them "chores" - paperwork, arranging flowers, answering the phone calls of patients' relatives, answering the patients' bells, and so on. All, or nearly all, of these could be turned over to a non-nurse floor clerk, paid a fraction of a nurse's pay. This accomplished, the productivity of the nurses on the floor immediately more than doubled, as measured by the time nurses spent at the patients' beds. Patient satisfaction more than doubled and turnover of nurses (which had been catastrophically high) almost disappeared-all within four months.” (Drucker 1999)
What quality looks like in accomplishing that task, and how to determine whether they are meeting that level of quality
Clarifying the knowledge workers task is the first step, but with responsibility comes accountability. Since bosses do not have the knowledge to hold knowledge workers accountable, the workers must devise a system to monitor and hold each other accountable for quality.
The first accountability discussion is to define what quality looks like. This is again a conversation that knowledge workers themselves must have. It may take several tries to define quality in a way that is accurate and measurable. “Surgeons, for example, are routinely measured, especially by their colleagues, by their success rates in difficult and dangerous procedures (e.g., by the survival rates of their open-heart surgical patients or the full recovery rates of their orthopedic-surgery patients).”
Brand Velocity, a consulting company, provides a useful example of workers holding each other accountable. Brand Velocity developed a points system instead of a hierarchical based compensation system. Points are awarded for selling great work, delivering great work, and recruiting and developing a diverse group of people who can do the same. This system has been in place for five years. “[The points system] means that anyone can earn more money than their boss and earn equity linked directly to his or her individual and collective contributions.”
Points are calculated per engagement. The gross profit is translated into points (gross profit = net revenue –cost related to sales and delivery) and awarded to those who contributed to generating this gross profit. 25% of the points go to the sales lead, a 15% pool is distributed by the sales lead for sales assistance, 30% goes to the delivery lead, and a 30% pool is distributed by the delivery lead for delivery assistance. Points can also be tailored to nonfinancial measures, such as employee recruiting and development. The Brand Velocity team collaboratively decided how many points they wanted to award to valuable contributions, although it took several tries to produce a system they were satisfied with.
This points system is one way workers can hold each other accountable for doing productive work. Another example is provided by Drucker describing a telephone company. “The technologist had to work by himself. He could not be supervised. He, therefore, had to define quality, and he had to deliver it. It took… several years before that was answered. At first the telephone company thought that this meant a sample check, which had supervisors go out and look at a sample (maybe every 20th or 30th job done by an individual service person) and check it for quality. This very soon turned out to be the wrong way of doing the job, annoying servicemen and customers alike. Then the telephone company defined quality as "no complaints"-and they soon found out that only extremely unhappy customers complained. It then had to redefine quality as "positive customer satisfaction.' In the end, this then meant that the serviceman himself controlled quality (e.g., by calling up a week or ten days after he had done a job and asking the customer whether the work was satisfactory and whether there was anything more the technician could possibly do to give the customer the best possible and most satisfactory service.”
Knowledge Management Professionals
There are several ways that knowledge management professionals can assist managers in their efforts to increase knowledge workers' productivity. The first is to educate ourselves about knowledge workers. Secondly, to help managers become aware of the differences between knowledge workers and more traditional workers. In part this can be accomplished by providing articles and research to management to familiarize them with the differences. Some sources are the writings of Drucker, Mintzberg, and Hamel , and the websites of Coaching Ourselves and Management Innovation eXchange. Finally, for mangers who are interested in exploring these ideas, knowledge management professionals can help them set up experiments and then track pre and post levels of productivity