by Tom Davenport

Best Practices for Supporting Knowledge Workers

Oct 01, 20036 mins
IT Leadership

This being the last in a series of columns here about knowledge worker productivity, I thought you might be expecting some answers. One thing I know for sure: Depriving knowledge workers of sleep is definitely not a route to enhanced productivity. I started this column on my way to Thailand (and highly sleep-deprived), and it turns out I was not very productive at all!

But before I answer your questions about what does work well, a brief review of the problems might be useful.

  • Knowledge work is hard to measure, so most of us don’t bother.
  • Although not all knowledge workers are alike, there is no standard classification or segmentation scheme for them.
  • There are lots of “productivity tools” for knowledge workers—too many—but they don’t connect well with each other.
  • The organizational support for knowledge work is similarly fragmented and comes from a variety of IT organizations, human resources, facilities organizations and so forth.

So how do we put this Humpty Dumpty back together again? One approach is to integrate the various technologies that knowledge workers use. In the past week, for example, I’ve met several people who have shifted to PDA/cell phone combo devices—not because they are cool gadgets, but because they hold the potential for simplifying life. At the very least, they can reduce the number of devices to carry and limit the number of name-and-address files to manage.

By the same logic, the fewer computers one uses, the better. Many people have begun to use their work laptops for all their computing needs. That is, of course, if your organization doesn’t mind you using its machine for personal applications and messaging, and that you don’t mind using a laptop for everything. A lot of people (including me) already carry a laptop everywhere, so we might as well get the benefits of “architectural consolidation” and bag the home desktop altogether.

Another IT-related approach is to integrate the various support groups for knowledge worker technologies. At most large organizations today, there’s one group to support messaging technologies, one for knowledge management, one for personal productivity applications and perhaps another for help on wireless communications devices. The different groups mean that IT is unlikely to develop an integrated approach to helping knowledge workers use these tools effectively. The individual employee is left to his own devices, so to speak.

I came across one organization that is addressing this problem, however. Intel’s IT organization has recently reorganized itself to combine the knowledge management, collaboration and personal productivity groups. Called eWorkforce, the group supports knowledge worker use of PCs, laptops, cell phones and PDAs. The primary goal is to develop integrated solutions for “generic” knowledge worker processes—arranging and conducting an asynchronous meeting or managing a project. While I believe it’s a great step forward to integrate devices and support organizations, I’d argue that to make real progress in knowledge worker productivity, we need to disintegrate the target audience. That is, since all knowledge workers aren’t alike, we need to begin to segment them into meaningful categories and apply IT, process improvement approaches and other productivity aids differently for each category.

The question is what sort of segmentation scheme to use. Intel has created one based primarily on behaviors and attitudes toward technology. Its categories are as follows:

  • Functionalists—Primarily manufacturing workers (but including some office workers) who use IT occasionally but don’t rely heavily on “office IT” to perform their job functions.
  • Cube captains—Spend the majority of their time in the office, are very mainstream in their office IT needs and are overall very happy with the tool sets they have.
  • Nomads—Heavy users of remote access and mobile IT, whether while traveling or working in remote offices.
  • Global collaborators—Interface often with people around the world; they resemble nomads but work across time zones and need access to collaboration tools, anywhere, anytime.
  • Tech individualists—They want and adopt early the latest IT tools and are willing to take risks with them.

These probably wouldn’t be the right categories for all organizations, but I view it as a great step forward for Intel to create and address them. Intel’s next step is to put them in the context of business process and business unit needs.

My own hypothesis is that the best way to segment knowledge workers would be by the roles they perform within the organization. I would guess that determining whether you’re a “field sales analyst” or a “midlevel marketing manager” would drive the type of work you do and how it could be done more productively and effectively. Of course, that will be difficult and perhaps expensive. Most organizations don’t even know how many roles they have. I suspect the only role-based segments that might make sense are those in which there are many workers in a single segment, or in which better productivity or performance is mission-critical.

A great example of such a role-based approach is at the global telecom company BT, which has focused considerable effort on its 15,000 customer contact workers. The focus for these workers was less on increased productivity (typically measured in call-handling times) and more on improved customer service through better availability of relevant information and knowledge. BT implemented a new role-specific portal, BT AdvisorSpace, within its customer contact centers. BT’s goal is to make available all needed information and knowledge in real-time while the customer is on the phone—and eventually to bring the relevant information to the screen automatically based on the current customer transaction. Already the new system has led to a several percentage-point increase in customers feeling that their adviser was helpful and knowledgeable (it’s at 97 percent now). The advisers’ confidence in the information they use is up by 23 percent. To me, that’s a great example of what an organization can accomplish when it focuses its efforts and information resources on a particular role.

Of course, there are important ways to improve productivity that don’t involve IT. One is to ensure that there are measures of productivity and effectiveness in place (easy in call centers, harder with more autonomous knowledge workers). Another is to develop business process standards such as the Capability Maturity Model I mentioned in my last column. A third is to treat every intervention into knowledge work as an experiment—with measures, a control group, clear hypotheses about the result and so forth.

I’m more confident than ever about the importance—and the difficulty—of addressing the topic of knowledge worker productivity. Just remember: It’s the Next Big Thing, and you heard it here first.