Managing the ideas army.

Thomas Davenport

Davenport is a professor at Babson College in the US and the author and co-author of bestsellers like Working Knowledge, What’s the Big Idea?, and the most recent, Competing on Analytics.

Organisations need to rise up to the challenge of managing a new breed of employees—the knowledge workers.

Peter Drucker, the father of management, had amazing foresight. In 1959, he identified a trend that was nowhere on the horizon, but finds ever greater resonance today. He talked of ‘knowledge workers’—or people with high education and expertise, the primary purpose of whose job has something to do with knowledge creation, distribution or application—and how they would play a huge role in the global economy. Knowledge workers—doctors, lawyers, investment bankers, IT professionals, engineers, scientists—are responsible for sparking off innovation in organisations.

Research indicates that in 1920, the ratio of manual work to knowledge work was 2:1. Today the ratio has reversed. While in the developed world, the number of knowledge workers has already reached gigantic proportions, in India the trend is catching on fast. Funnily enough, Drucker even foresaw a peculiar problem that dogs companies today: the productivity of knowledge workers. “To make knowledge work productive will be the great management task of this century,” he had said.

Thomas Davenport, a professor at Babson College in the US, is fascinated with knowledge workers. “I agreed with Drucker,” says Davenport, “but didn’t really think that most people had taken that seriously.” So Davenport explored it further and wrote a book titled Thinking for a Living (HBS press). “I realised that what was really important about knowledge management was not taking all the knowledge and putting it in a repository but actually beginning to change the way knowledge workers did their work,” he says. “And that any of the business processes that organisations needed to improve in order to succeed were not transactional or administrative, but knowledge-based.”

A skewered view:

Organisations are still using industrial age methods to manage this new breed. But, for starters, knowledge workers like autonomy. “They don’t like to be told how to do their job. That creates problems for any organisation trying to improve knowledge work because you can’t undertake it as a strict process-oriented approach that is used for other things,” says Davenport. Also, knowledge workers don’t share their knowledge easily.

It is nearly impossible for companies to specify detailed steps and regimented processes for a knowledge worker to do his or her job. “Knowledge workers are motivated to succeed not because someone else tells them that they need to, but because personally they want to,” says Davenport. “They are motivated to learn and have high needs for being stimulated in their work. They want their work to have some larger meaning than just being paid for it.”

In their confusion, organisations resort to HSPTLA, or Hire Smart People and Leave Them Alone. “It’s a good idea to hire smart people but I certainly don’t see any reason why you should leave them there. There are a variety of interventions that organisations can make to make their knowledge workers more effective,” says Davenport.

Clearly, conventional management techniques do not work for knowledge workers, so what will?

Subtle interventions:

The trick lies in being subtle about suggesting improvements. So instead of defining everything, Davenport says, “You could say that we would like the end product to look something like this and you could give them a template and say how you produce this is up to you.” So instead of a “work-breakdown” structure, organisations need to “provide templates and examples, objectives on particular staff and leave some space for doing the work instead of deciding exactly how they should go about it.” For instance, IBM doesn’t give its researchers a process model, but assigns them an internal customer whose job is to try to convert their research into a product or a service offering.

The player-coach leader:

“Managers of knowledge work need to continue to be knowledge workers themselves,” says Davenport, who calls them ‘player coaches’. What he means is simple: knowledge workers like to be led by example. So if you are the boss, you better not let administrative responsibilities distract you from knowledge work, because that’s the only reason why people will take you seriously.

Maintain the distinction:

It is important for organisations to distinguish between knowledge workers and others. “Companies are usually reluctant to single out knowledge workers for different treatment,” says Davenport, adding that this may negatively impact employee engagement. But some companies do make that distinction. Capital One, for instance, differentiates between knowledge workers and call centre workers who are not included in the programme which offers greater mobility and flexibility. Similarly, electronics retailer Best Buy’s Result-Oriented Work Environment—which gives employees flexibility to do their work as they wish to and where they wish to as long as they get it done on time—only applies to workers at headquarters. But how do you measure knowledge worker engagement? “Measuring conventional things like are you happy with your boss are basic human needs for affiliation and engagement for work. They are fine for knowledge workers, but not enough,” says Davenport. “One thing that knowledge workers care about a lot is ‘how much am I learning and how stimulating is my work environment’. Those kinds of questions should be included as well.”

Rethinking the workplace:

A knowledge work environment has to be somewhat more democratic. “Any differential in status, prestige and compensation between the people who do the knowledge work and people who manage it would be somewhat compressed,” says Davenport. In professional services companies, it is not uncommon for a very high-performing investment banker—someone who does deals with clients and trades stocks very successfully—to actually make more money than the CEO. There is some degree of this in high-technology manufacturing firms like Hewlett-Packard and Intel.

Organisations need to build in more flexibility to help knowledge workers do their job better. “CapitalOne is one of the best examples of use of workplace design for knowledge workers,” says Davenport. They call it the Future of Work and it combines offering workers more mobility, new technologies offering more mobility with a variety of choices on places to work. “So if I need a quiet environment, I can go to a quiet area. If I need a more social environment, I can go to a coffee lounge. They went through a quite expensive change management approach,” says Davenport. They have had it for three years and the results are showing. “People feel they can work more productively, without interruptions, and find the resources they need,” he says.

Measuring productivity:

That still leaves the nebulous issue of measuring productivity. Most organisations use a one-size-fitsall approach, which Davenport says, is stupid. “There is no good measure of knowledge worker productivity: it works across multiple jobs. It’s usually relatively easy to measure knowledge worker productivity for a specific job,” he says. So if you have an IT worker you can measure things like lines of code per day or customer satisfaction with the output or error rates, but these measures will not work for the others.

Since a lot of knowledge work really boils down to the quality of work, there have to be some measures of quality as well. “For example, if my work is being used by someone else I can measure the satisfaction of the client. If my work is supposed to be built on by other people, I can measure the degree to which other people build on it,” he says.

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