by Tom Davenport

Knowledge Workers: Improving Their Processes

Jun 01, 20036 mins
Enterprise Applications

I’ve just coauthored a book on new ideas in business. (It’s called What’s the Big Idea? Only $29.95. Operators are standing by for your call.) As a result, people keep asking, “So what’s the next big thing?” Mind you, I missed e-commerce and the Internet, so I could easily be wrong. But I’m betting one particular idea will succeed in the next few years, and the nice editors at CIO are going to let me write several columns about it.

This big idea involves knowledge work and knowledge workers, and the technologies they use to do their jobs. My thesis begins with first identifying who a knowledge worker is and (especially) who a knowledge worker isn’t. They’re the people who, as a primary aspect of their work, create knowledge, share it with others, or apply it in decisions and actions. By my classification of Bureau of Labor Statistics data, we have about 36 million of them in the United States alone—that’s close to 30 percent of the working population. Think of knowledge workers as the horses that pull the plow in sophisticated economies—they’re the research scientists, the IT architects, the strategic planners, the doctors, the lawyers, the Indian chiefs. Then consider where we would be in terms of innovation, science, management, marketing and high-level services without them. Nowhere.

But how have we treated these invaluable human resources? Have we given them the attention they deserve? Have they been the focus of our best efforts at process improvement, the design of effective work environments, and the studied application of information technology? Hardly. We have done little to help our economy’s most valuable capability (and I’ll elaborate in later columns on the various domains of scandalous inaction).

Now, I’m no Marxist; but you can never discount the importance of class structure. Knowledge workers as a class “own the means of production.” They have largely escaped systematic scrutiny because they don’t really have the desire to turn the analytical lens on themselves. Knowledge workers don’t like to be told what to do; heck, they don’t even like to be told that there is a common structure and flow to their work. Their work is more variable and unpredictable than production or administrative work, so if you do want to understand it, you have to look hard and long. Much of what they do is invisible—it takes place inside the human brain. Eliciting how a doctor makes a diagnosis or how an investment analyst chooses a stock has never been easy. And finally, some of these groups of workers have their own equivalent of unions—professional associations—that have successfully resisted encroachment from the outside.

When it comes to knowledge workers, we pretty much hire smart people and leave them alone. No quality measurements, no Six Sigma, no reengineering. We haven’t formally examined the flow of work, we have no benchmarks, and there is no accountability for the cost and time these activities consume. As a result, we have little sense of whether they could do better.

Believe me, I’m not in favor of a heavy-handed, top-down reengineering initiative, but it seems these knowledge workers are too important and too expensive to be left alone completely.

Which brings me to my big idea (finally!): I believe that the next big process change initiative should involve knowledge work. Let’s examine how we do strategy, marketing campaigns, mergers and acquisitions, and R&D programs. Maybe we could even take on the process of management. This time—unlike in days gone by with reengineering—we should involve those who do the work. I see no reason why participative, creative efforts can’t improve knowledge processes just as they improved the more structured, less knowledge-intensive type.

Technology and Knowledge Work

For several decades, whenever we’ve had to automate a function, we’ve undertaken a good deal of systematic thinking beforehand. We do detailed task analysis and requirements definition; we model process and information flows. Careful thought goes into what kinds of hardware and software might be relevant to the work. Cost-benefit analysis is applied. Some thorough organizations even do post-implementation evaluations.

What do we do when a knowledge worker needs some technology? We say, “Here’s a PC and a phone,” and recommend software already installed in a one-size-fits-all approach. The more ambitious IT shops might even provide a laptop for highly mobile workers, or, if we’re really progressive, throw in a BlackBerry. But if you want a cell phone, you’re on your own.

What are the chances that your organization will supply you with policies or even ideas about how to use these things? Would you like some guidelines on managing your e-mail, your online collaborative team rooms, your IMs, your voice mailboxes? Fat chance. Figure it out yourself. At best we’ll provide an update on “Using Microsoft Outlook” or a standardized time-management course. If you want to figure out how to integrate all your various devices and determine what information you really need and get control of your e-mail and use the right application for the right task and be really productive, you’d better be prepared to do it on your own and take a lot of time to do it. But do you do this? No. You have a life.

The good news: The problem is at least beginning to be studied. The Information Worker Productivity Council is a new organization comprising technology vendors and integrators. Initiated by Microsoft, it also includes Accenture, BT, Cisco, Hewlett-Packard, SAP and Xerox. We (I confess to being involved on Accenture’s behalf) are also working with MIT, academics at several other institutions and the American Productivity and Quality Center. A variety of information work processes are under study, but one project in particular addresses the personal information and knowledge environments of knowledge workers like you and me. It’s early days for this group, but I have high hopes for its work.

The Other Stuff

Knowledge workers need good processes and technology, but they also need an organizational structure that doesn’t get in their way; an office that facilitates both quiet, concentration-based work and the free interchange of ideas with coworkers; the ability to both stay put and move around; and the right combination of team structures and individual accountability.

What’s the most productive work environment for knowledge workers? Organizations have adopted a wide variety of alternative arrangements for knowledge work. Cubicles. Hoteling. The problem is that we don’t learn much from our “experiments.” We adopt new ways of officing, organizing and operating based not on rational experimentation and learning, but rather on the four Fs: fads, fashions, faith and finances.

I’m just getting started here with my righteous indignation about knowledge worker problems and privations, but I’ve run out of space. Stay with me for the next few issues as I continue to work out my grievances. By the end of your summer vacation, we’ll have solved all these problems!