Getting Down to Busy-ness: Knowledge Workers Are Less Productive than Ever

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Knowledge is now the main product of advanced economies and the livelihood of the largest group of the population in developed countries. But how do you measure and improve the productivity of knowledge workers, asks columnist Dr. Robert Swaim, when you cannot readily observe what they are doing?

Peter Drucker coined the term "knowledge workers" over forty years ago and wrote the following in his book, Management Challenges for the 21st Century:

"The most valuable assets of the 20th-century company were its production equipment. The most valuable asset of a 21st-century institution, whether business or non-business, will be its knowledge workers and their productivity." Peter F. Drucker

This article addresses the following questions and Drucker’s views with respect to knowledge and manual workers:
  1. What is the difference between "Manual Workers" and "Knowledge Workers"?
  2. Why has the productivity of manual workers dramatically increased during the 20th century, while productivity of knowledge workers has decreased?
  3. What are the characteristics of knowledge workers, their job needs, what motivates them, and how to lead, not manage them?
  4. How do you increase the productivity of knowledge workers and why this is important?
The Difference Between Manual & Knowledge Workers
"Manual Workers" are those who essentially work with their hands, operate machines, assemble parts, etc. and are generally involved in the manufacture of a tangible product. The task of what they are to do is given, including the tools and equipment to use, with the focus on how to do it and to do things right, or efficiency. If manual workers leave the organization, the tools they used to perform their work generally remain behind with the organization. This may differ where certain trades require the craftsman to furnish their own tools such as in home building, but rare in most other cases such as an automobile manufacturing plant.
In knowledge work the task of what to do is controlled by knowledge workers, they own the means of production (knowledge not machines), they decide what methods and steps to use, and they focus on what to do and to the right things or effectiveness. When they leave an organization, they take the tools with them – knowledge.
Drucker identified another group that is in between both the manual worker and the knowledge worker, the "Technologist." This is someone who may work with their hands but requires special knowledge, training, and skills to perform their work. As an example, an X-Ray technician in the hospital, the dental assistant who cleans your teeth, the Xerox service representative who repairs the copier and so forth.
Drucker felt this group was becoming the largest of the three but did not really focus on them in his discussions of the knowledge worker. He did acknowledge that technologist have to be treated as knowledge workers and that although the manual work of their job may comprise the majority of their time, the focus has to be on making the technologist knowledgeable, responsible, and productive as a knowledge worker. In that regard, much of what is contained in this article would also apply to the technologist, and I suggest, might also apply to most of today’s workforce other than perhaps the pure laborer digging a trench.
The Productivity Achievements of Manual Workers
In the 20th century, organizations and management experts focused on increasing the productivity of "Manual Workers." As a result, according to Drucker, there was a fifty-fold increase in the productivity of the manual worker due to the contribution of the early Classical School management theorist, Fredrick Taylor (Scientific Management) in the early 1900’s, and later in the century, by other contributors, such as Edward Deming (statistical quality control and quality management). As recently as the 1960s, almost fifty percent of all workers in industrialized countries were involved in making things or helping to make things.
Today however, less than twelve to seventeen percent of the employees in developed countries are involved in manual work – making things with their hands. In 1950, seventy three percent of employees in the United States worked in production or manufacturing while now less than fifteen percent do. This decrease was not created by globalization and the exporting of jobs by multinational companies to China and other low labor-cost countries as many in the U.S. Congress argue for the benefit of their labor union constituencies who are few in number but vocal.
It has largely been the direct result of the productivity gains in manual work as mentioned here.
Also, farmers were the backbone of most economies a century ago – not only in the numbers of people employed, but also in the value of what they produced. Now, in developed countries, few people are involved in farming work. As an example, in the 1900’s, eighty five percent of the United States workforce was employed in agriculture. Now only three percent of the U.S. workforce is employed in agriculture and most likely are illegal Mexicans, while in the world’s second largest economy, approximately thirty one percent of the Chinese population is still involved in farming today.
Knowledge Work, The Knowledge Worker and Productivity
Knowledge work and the knowledge worker produce a different type of product, such as a new computer software program, a design for a new product, market research studies as to what opportunities the organization should pursue, etc. Typically, the output of a knowledge worker is someone else’s input and information for management decision-making. Knowledge workers are "specialists" in their own fields, and typically know more about their field than the managers they work for, which is why they are knowledge workers. This presents another challenge for the manager, how to manage someone who knows more about the job than you do?
In the 21st century organization and economy, there are now more knowledge workers than manual workers. Knowledge is now the main product of the advanced economy and the livelihood of the largest group of the population in developed countries. Increasingly, knowledge is the key factor in a country’s international economic strength and managers need to understand how to lead and increase the productivity of knowledge work.
Alvin Toffler in his book Revolutionary Wealth (2006) discusses three waves or movements. The first being the early transition from hunters to agriculture, the second from agriculture to industrialization, and now the third wave from industrialization to knowledge. Some developing nations such as China face the challenge of transitioning in two waves at the same time, from agriculture to industrial to absorb the over one hundred and fifty to two hundred million floating unemployed migrant workers from the rural areas of China, and from industrial to knowledge as China attempts to keep pace with the developed world in technological achievements.
The Problem – How to Measure and Increase the Productivity of Knowledge Work?
According to Drucker, "Where manual worker productivity has dramatically increased, the productivity of knowledge workers has been decreasing and the problem has not been addressed." The question is how to measure and improve the productivity of knowledge workers when you really cannot observe what they are doing, as in the case of manual workers? Are they looking out the window at the birds, or are they creating a new product design? Drucker commented, "In terms of actual work on knowledge worker productivity we are, in the year 2000, roughly where we were in the year 1900, and a century ago, in terms of the productivity of the manual worker."
Reasons for Low Knowledge Worker Productivity
As mentioned, Peter F. Drucker recognized this issue over 40 years ago. Some of the reasons he identified which contribute to decreasing knowledge worker productivity are as follows:
  • The tendency to confuse busyness (filling out paper, passing paper back and forth and attending meetings) with productivity
  • Knowledge work cannot be replaced by capital investment as in the case of manual work
  • Capital investment creates the need for more knowledge work and creates a demand for new and more highly paid employees
  • Few know how to deal with managing the knowledge worker and increasing their productivity. In fact Drucker suggests that, "Knowledge workers need to be led, not managed."

A recent survey of 10,000 knowledge workers in the United States revealed they feel they are less productive today compared to a decade ago and that they waste over two hours a day excluding lunch. Interesting, many attributed this to technology, namely the Internet and time consumed reading and responding to emails each day although some also played games. Another major reason cited by the respondents was not having enough work to do or they felt they were underpaid for the work they did do.

Understanding the Knowledge Worker

To improve knowledge worker productivity, according to Drucker, it is necessary to understand the characteristics of knowledge workers, their job needs, and what motivates them. These are presented as follows:
Characteristics of the Knowledge Worker
How Do They Like to Work?
  1. Knowledge workers have their own routines and patterns of work and therefore, they may not necessarily conform to 9 AM to 5 PM office hours.
  2. They consider the productivity of their work to be the quality, not quantity, of their output of their work.
  3. They are highly mobile and can move to a new company if learning and personal growth opportunities do not exist, or if they are underutilized in their present positions. As such, they are more committed to their professions rather than to the organization where they are employed.
  4. They will work with associates in a team depending on the assignment but often prefer to work alone.
  5. They must respect who they work for.
  6. They need feedback but do not accept criticism of their work well.
  7. The physical space where they work does not need to be too large but it should also not be a "black hole."
  8. They have a "mental space" and do not appreciate people intruding on it.
  9. Their performance and energy levels operate in cycles – they are not machines that can be turned on and off easily.
What Kind of Work Do They Want and How to Perform It?
  1. Knowledge workers need challenging work – opportunities to pursue and problems to solve. Continuous innovation must be built into the job.
  2. Their authorities and responsibilities need to be clear – what decisions can they make?
  3. Knowledge workers need to take responsibility for the job and need productive work.
  4. They are self-directed, but need leadership and support from their manager.
  5. Continuous learning in their field of specialty and profession is extremely important.
  6. Knowledge workers need feedback information in order to measure their own performance against standards and objectives.
What Motivates Them to Perform?
  1. Knowledge workers are not motivated by fear, but are motivated by achievement – they want to see the results of their work.
  2. They are self-motivated – given a positive organizational environment.
  3. The value support – they want others to think that what they’re working on is important.
  4. Money and promotional opportunities are low on their list of motivation factors – typically they are well paid and enjoy what they do. Their chief reward is in their job and the work itself – if it is meaningful and makes a contribution to the organization.
As can be seen, the characteristics, job needs and what motivates knowledge workers are considerably different than that of manual workers. In relation to popular motivational and leadership theories, knowledge workers can be considered to be at the highest level of motivational needs.
As an example, they are at the highest level of Abraham Maslow’s "Hierarchy of Needs Theory" in that they are motivated by "Self Actualization and Learning and Understanding Needs" rather than the lower level "Security and Safety Needs." With respect to Frederick Hertzberg’s "Hygiene and Motivation Theory," they are motivated by the need for "Achievement and the Quality of Their Work" rather than other "Hygiene Factors," such as compensation and benefits and working conditions. And in terms of David McClelland’s "Needs Theory" they are motivated by the "Need for Achievement," rather than the needs for "Power" or "Affiliation."
It is not practical to expand on all of the motivational theories sited here. For those not familiar with these and other motivational theories, I suggest a reference text written by Steven P. Robbins, Organizational Behavior. As previously noted in an earlier article, Drucker took a relatively dim view of the various leadership and motivational theories that emanated from the Behavioral School although he did have is own views on these topics that were covered in that article such as it is easier to de-motivate than motivate people including knowledge workers.
Guidelines for Improving the Productivity and Effectiveness of Knowledge Workers
According to Drucker, increasing the productivity of the knowledge worker requires addressing a number of key factors and asking some important questions. These have been incorporated into a checklist for easier reference compared to searching for the key points on knowledge workers in Drucker’s books that are mainly narratives. It should also be interesting to ask yourself as you review the checklist, do these factors apply only to knowledge workers or everyone who works for me (manual workers, technologists, managers who report to me, etc.)? There are Eight Major Factors and key questions associated with each factor to consider that are outlined below. Also building on the checklist, each factor will be addressed in detail.
Defining the "Task" or the "Results"
According to Drucker, "The first requirement in tackling knowledge work is to find out what is the task is so to make it possible to concentrate knowledge workers on the task and eliminate everything else – at least as far as it can possibly be determined." This initially can create some confusion in terms of attempting to differentiate between the knowledge worker’s "job" (Market Research Analyst), the "tasks" that the knowledge worker performs (conducts market research surveys, designs survey questionnaires, conducts focused interviews, etc. and the desired "results" (delivers a market research report on a particular market segment in China). It was also felt that Drucker deviated here from his holding people accountable and responsible for "results" by now focusing on how these results are to be achieved – the "task." To maintain consistency, we should focus on the "desired results" the knowledge worker is expected to produce – not the tasks.
The Eight Key Factors in Knowledge Worker Performance
  1. Define Results: What results is the knowledge worker to produce?
  2. The Job Assignment: What is the job the knowledge worker is to be assigned to or in now?
  3. Task and Time Assessment: What are the tasks the knowledge worker is to perform and over what period of time? When do we expect the results?
  4. Agreement on Objectives and Their Measurement: What objectives will be mutually agreed to and how will they be measured?
  5. Providing Support: What support does the knowledge worker require to produce the results (budget, information, your coordination to involve others, etc.)?
  6. Feedback and Self-Feedback Systems: How will the knowledge worker be able to measure his or her progress (self-control)?
  7. Recognition: How do you plan to recognize the knowledge worker for producing the desired results (financial and non-financial rewards)?
  8. Continuous Learning: What continuous learning and self-development experience will be made available to the knowledge worker (courses, seminars, professional conferences, and associations, etc.)?
The following is a more detailed discussion of each of these eight factors and key questions to ask relative to the factor.
Factor #1: Defining Results
Drucker stressed that the starting point in managing knowledge workers and their productivity is a definition of "results." What is the final product the knowledge worker is to produce? Drucker also outlined "Four Dimensions" with respect to defining results that include; The Quality and Quantity Dimension, The Time Dimension, The Resource Dimension, and The Restrictions and Limitations Dimension. These Dimensions are summarized in the following checklists for easy reference.
The Quality and Quantity Dimension
1. What should the quality and quantity of the results be?
2. How will quality and quantity be measured (agreed upon standards)?
The Time Dimension
1. When should these results be delivered?
2. Is when the results are expected to be delivered flexible enough to allow the knowledge worker time to perform?
The Resource Dimension
1. What financial resources are needed to produce the results (budget)?
2. What special knowledge and skills will be needed by the knowledge worker to produce the desired results?
3. What additional resources may be required (clerical support, research assistants, other knowledge workers, etc.)?
The Restrictions and Limitations Dimension
1. What restrictions and limitations exist that must be considered (limited budget, hiring freeze, other restrictions, etc.)?
Factor #2: The Job Assignment
According to Drucker, "Assignment control is the key to knowledge worker productivity." Here again, Drucker suggests there are "Three Dimensions" to the Job Assignment; The Selection Dimension, The Autonomy and Responsibility Dimension, and The Knowledge Worker Reflection and Work Plan. A checklist is provided again for easy reference.
The Selection Decision Dimension
1. Who has the best strengths for this assignment (knowledge, skills, qualifications, and experience) to produce the desired results?
2. Can an individual complete the assignment or will it require a team of knowledge workers? If a team, who should be included and who should be the team leader?
3. Is this assignment the best one for this knowledge worker(s) that will produce the desired results?
4. Is this the best use of the knowledge worker?
5. Is this the best assignment for this person? Does it utilize his or her strengths?
6. Will this assignment present a challenge for the knowledge worker?
7. Is this assignment an opportunity to pursue or a problem to solve? If a problem, how long will the knowledge worker be dedicated to solving it?
The Autonomy and Responsibility Dimension
1. Will the knowledge worker be provided the autonomy to complete the assignment or is there a tendency of the manager to want to over or micromanage the project?
2. Will the knowledge worker be able to make decisions relative to his or her work? What decisions will require additional approval?
3. What will the knowledge worker be responsible for – and not responsible for?
4. What responsibilities will the manager of the knowledge worker retain?
Knowledge Worker Reflection & Work Plan Dimension
1. How will the assignment be performed to produce the desired results?
2. Has the knowledge worker been provided time for reflection on what work needs to be done and how to produce the desired results?
3. What are the tasks that need to be completed? Who should perform these tasks and in what order? Will some tasks of other knowledge workers or support people be input for other tasks? (See Knowledge Worker’s Preliminary Work Plan for an example.)
4. How will progress be measured (objectives, milestones, and feedback and self-feedback systems)?
Factor #3: Task Analysis and Time Assessment
In assessing the Tasks to be completed and the Time to complete them in, several key questions needed to be asked by both the manager and the knowledge worker who has been assigned to produce the results. This could also be considered part of the knowledge worker’s reflection prior to starting the project. The key questions to answer are also included in the checklists.
Task Analysis Checklists
What? Check the need and use of the job considered.
1. What is being done?
2. What is the purpose?
3. Is it essential? Would the sky fall down on us if we stopped doing it?
4. What keeps you from doing your tasks and should be eliminated?
Where? In order to check if the place where we are doing something is the most appropriate one.
1. Where is the job performed? Why?
2. Could it be performed somewhere else, in a more economical and satisfactory manner? Outsourced?
When? In order to make sure that the job is being carried out at the most appropriate time.
1. When is the job being carried out? Why?
2. Is this the best time to do it?
3. Could it be done in another sequence?
4. What is the current status toward achieving the knowledge worker’s present objectives?
Who? In order to make sure that the person who performs the job is the most appropriate one.
1. Who does this job? Why? Who could or must do it? Why?
2. Could a more qualified person do it more economically?
3. Could a less qualified person do it after being trained?
4. Could the tasks be outsourced?
How? In order to find out whether the job can be simplified or better performed, with less complication, higher quality, and lower cost.
1. How is the job done? Why?
2. Could it be done in an easier and simper way?
3. Can it be done with higher quality, without introducing complications?
4. Are the means used the most appropriate?
5. Are there alternative means or other ways of doing the job that are better than the present ones?
6. Which things make the job complicated or difficult for the people who perform it? Could some things be eliminated?
As can be seen, there are number of important questions that need to be addressed in this area alone if the productivity of knowledge workers is to be improved.
Factor #4: Objectives and their Measurement Dimension
This Dimension is classic Drucker and directly from his book Managing for Results (1964) and later adopted in the Classical School as Management by Objectives (MBO). Since the practice of MBO is now over forty years old this checklist is relatively brief so as to "Go Green" and safe another tree.
MBO as Applied to the Knowledge Worker
  1. Knowledge and Objectives - Knowledge workers require that demands be made on them by knowledge – rather than bosses and by objectives – not people.
  2. Mutually Established - The knowledge worker’s objectives should be mutually established between the management and the knowledge worker and directly relate to the results to be produced and the tasks to be completed to produce the desired results.
  3. Milestones – Establish milestones for each task and objective. The manager should not over manage, but needs information as to progress in achieving the desired results.
  4. Reporting - The times the knowledge worker will report results or progress need to be determined.
Factor #5: Providing Support
This factor includes a number of "Key Questions to Ask" in terms of providing support to the knowledge worker.
Providing Support – Key Questions
  1. Support Required - What can management do to help the knowledge worker do his or her job? Ask when discussing the "Knowledge Worker’s Preliminary Work Plan" and provide the support that is required.
  2. Obstacles - What hinders the knowledge worker from doing the job? Ask and remove it.
  3. Others – Who else needs to know about this assignment? Do they have to provide input to the knowledge worker to complete a task? Are they cooperative or acting in their own self interests and not as a team?
Factor #6: Feedback & Self Feedback
Once again, the literature on providing feedback to people for their performance to sustain or improve performance is extensive. Thousands of books have been written on performance appraisal and so another tree will be spared here. Drucker did stress, although not entirely unique, that the best feedback for knowledge workers in self-feedback.
In essence then, the knowledge worker should be able to refer to his or her Work Plan and the tasks and milestones and be able to gauge where he or she is in the path to producing the desired results. This also relates to one of the characteristics of the knowledge worker in that they do not accept criticism well.
This is not to say that the manager avoids contact with the knowledge worker, or worse yet, adopts a Management by Exception (MBE) approach, one of the worst concepts ever developed in management theory. This is the old, "You have complete freedom to do what is necessary to get the job done – just don’t screw up and then you will hear from me." In the MBE approach, the only time the knowledge worker sees his or her manager is when he or she makes a mistake and as such dreads seeing the manager. It does not take long for the relationship between the manager and knowledge worker to deteriorate. During the progress review, the manager should provide both positive and constructive feedback to the knowledge worker but care must be taken in how the constructive feedback is presented.

Factor #7: Recognition
Another factor in Drucker’s approach to improving knowledge worker productivity is to provide recognition for producing the desired results, once again a concept not unique to Drucker. Recognition could be in the form of both financial and non-financial rewards. Since the knowledge worker wants to stay abreast of developments in his or her own field, allowing them to attend industry conferences and professional organizations on company time versus their own time is an inexpensive form of recognition. If the manager is unsure as to what non-financial rewards would be appealing to the knowledge worker, simply ask them. Recognition can also be provided by providing the knowledge worker with opportunities for self-development as covered in Drucker’s last factor.
Factor #8: Continous Learning
The following are several of Drucker’s guidelines in dealing with the knowledge worker’s self development and the need for continuous learning, one of the job needs of knowledge workers previously discussed.
  1. The knowledge worker should ask – what do I need to learn to keep up with the knowledge and know the things I am paid to know?
  2. Knowledge workers should request their own training and development needs.
  3. Training and development should be focused on people’s strengths, rather than on their weaknesses and limitations.
  4. The objective is to do better the things that one already does well.
  5. Everyone (knowledge workers) should be encouraged to teach and share their knowledge with others in the organization.
  6. The knowledge worker should also ask, what do others need to know and understand about my area and what it can contribute to their own work?
  7. Finally, the knowledge worker should ask what does my manager need to know about my knowledge in order to understand the opportunities, issues, and problems we need to deal with?
The productivity of knowledge workers has not kept pace with the productivity of manual workers and in fact, has been decreasing. Management must know how to address this problem, since the number of knowledge workers as compared to manual workers in organizations, is increasing and will continue to do so.
A number of application tools that can be used in dealing with knowledge workers in your organization that should prove useful in applying a number of the concepts that were presented here can be obtained from the author directly by contacting him here.

Copyright © 2011 by Robert W. Swaim, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.