Discover more from Engineering Enablement
Knowledge-Worker Productivity: The Biggest Challenge
Traditional approaches to improving productivity may not be applicable to knowledge workers.
This is the latest issue of my newsletter. Each week I cover the latest research and perspectives on developer productivity.
This week I’m summarizing Peter Drucker’s Knowledge-Worker Productivity: The Biggest Challenge, a paper published in 1999 that is just as relevant today. In this paper, Drucker describes the key distinctions between the productivity of manual workers and that of knowledge workers. In doing so, he shows how organizations must move beyond past approaches to improving productivity.
“The most important contribution of management in the 20th century was the fifty-fold increase in the productivity of the manual worker in manufacturing. The most important contribution management needs to make in the 21st century is similarly to increase the productivity of knowledge work and knowledge workers. The most valuable assets of a 20th-century company was 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.”
My summary of the paper
To set the stage, Drucker gives an overview of the key advancements made to productivity throughout history:
Throughout history there have been several advances in what we today call “productivity” (the term itself is around fifty years old). There were advances to what was called “capital”—referring to new methods and new technologies—and advances to “labor”—the productivity of the worker. However, throughout history it has been understood that improving productivity was only achieved by working harder or working longer hours.
Prominent thinkers during this time showed that there is no such thing as “skill” in manual work: there is only simple, repetitive motions. What makes manual workers more productive is the way these motions are put together, organized, and executed. Every method during the past hundred years that has raised manual worker productivity has been based on these principles.
Drucker says that “the central challenge is no longer to make manual work more productive—after all, we know how to do it. The central challenge will be to make knowledge workers more productive.”
What distinguishes knowledge worker productivity
Drucker outlines the major factors that distinguish knowledge worker productivity. Each of the following requirements is almost the exact opposite of what is needed to increase the productivity of the manual worker.
1. Knowledge worker productivity demands that we ask the question: “What is the task?”
None of the people who work on manual-worker productivity ever asked, “What is the manual worker supposed to do?” Their only question was: “How does the manual worker best do the job?”
For knowledge work, the key question is: what is the task? In a hospital, it is the nurse’s decision whether to spend time at the patient's bed or to spend time filling out papers. Engineers are constantly being pulled from their task to attend meetings or help others. In sales, it is the sales person’s job to determine whether to spend time working on their pitch, providing supporting materials to customers, or reaching out to new prospects. All of that is to say that first requirement in tackling knowledge work is to find out what task needs to be done, and only knowledge workers themselves can answer that question. Therefore, improving productivity begins with knowledge workers asking themselves What is your task? What should you be expected to contribute? What hampers you in doing your task, and should that be eliminated?
“Nurses in a major hospital were asked these questions. 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. 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.”
2. Knowledge workers are responsible for their own contribution
It is the knowledge worker’s decision what they should be held accountable for in terms of quality and quantity with respect to time and cost. Knowledge workers have to have autonomy, and that entails responsibility. Additionally, continuous innovation and learning have to be built into the knowledge workers’ job.
3. Quality matters as much as quantity in knowledge work
Quality matters in manual work, of course, as there is usually a certain minimum standard of quality. In knowledge work, quality is not a minimum or restraint: “Quality is the essence of the output.” Productivity of knowledge work therefore has to aim first at obtaining quality—and not minimum quality but optimum if not maximum quality.
“Productivity of the knowledge worker is not—at least not primarily—a matter of the quantity of output. Quality is at least as important.”
This means we have to learn to define quality, which Drucker suggests can be achieved by first defining the task. An organization that emphasizes reducing failures will define their tasks differently than one that emphasizes producing breakthroughs, and thus they will also define quality differently.
4. Knowledge worker productivity requires that the knowledge worker is both seen and treated as an “asset” rather than a ”cost.”
Another key difference between the productivity of knowledge workers and that of manual workers is how they are considered by businesses: manual workers are seen as a cost, and knowledge workers must be considered an asset.
As Drucker puts it: employees who do manual work do not own the means of production. They may have a lot of valuable experience, but that experience is valuable only at the place where they work. Knowledge workers, however, own the means of production. “That knowledge between their ears is a totally portable and enormous capital asset.”
What about knowledge workers who also do manual work?
A very large number of knowledge workers do both knowledge work and manual work. Drucker calls them “technologists.” This group includes people who apply knowledge of the highest order. Drucker gives an example of a surgeon:
“Surgeons preparing for an operation to correct a brain aneurysm before it produces a lethal brain hemorrhage, spend hours in diagnosis before they cut—and that requires specialized knowledge of the highest order. Again, during the surgery, an unexpected complication may occur which calls for theoretical knowledge and judgment, both of the very highest order. However, the surgery itself is manual work—and manual work consisting of repetitive, manual operations in which the emphasis is on speed, accuracy, and uniformity. These operations are studied, organized, learned, and practiced exactly like any manual work.”
Making this group productive requires treating them as knowledge workers, which includes:
Asking the question “What is the task?”—the key question in making every knowledge worker more productive.
Giving individuals full responsibility for completing the task, which includes delivering quality. This requires knowledge first, and then the manual part of the job can be completed.
“Above all, technologists have to be treated as knowledge workers. No matter how important the manual part of their work, the focus has to be on making the technologist knowledgeable, responsible, and productive as a knowledge worker.”
The final section of the paper calls for more work to understand how to measure productivity. Drucker concludes that an organization’s ability to survive will increasingly depend on their comparative advantage in making the knowledge worker more productive.
That’s it for this week! If you’re finding this newsletter valuable, share it with a friend, and consider subscribing if you haven’t already:
P.S. Since the release of DevEx paper, many people have asked me for advice on how to design and run effective DevEx surveys. This guide by DX is a great resource.