Friday 24 July 2015

Revolutionising the performance of the knowledge worker.

Peter Drucker famously said that ‘‘to make knowledge work productive will be the great management task of this (20th) century, just as to make manual work productive was the great management task of the last century". To find out how we might do this, let's look at how the productivity of manual work was revolutionised.

The 50-fold productivity increase in manual work productivity that Drucker mentioned came through a number of factors

  1. The division of manual work into tasks, as in an assembly line process, and the recognition that the manual worker did not need to make everything. They would have their task, work on their component, and others would make the rest. As Wikipedia says, referring to Adam Smith's famous example of the pin factory - "Previously, in a society where production was dominated by handcrafted goods, one man would perform all the activities required during the production process, while Smith described how the work was divided into a set of simple tasks, which would be performed by specialized workers. The result of labor division in Smith’s example resulted in productivity increasing so that the same number of workers made 240 times as many pins as they had been producing before the introduction of labor division."

  2. The elimination of waste effort, so that the work is done the simplest way, the easiest way, the way that puts the least physical and mental strain on the operator, and the way that requires the least time. 

  3. Automation, so that machines can take much of the burden of labour that the human used to provide, and 

  4. A supply chain for component parts, so that the worker, when they need a part, find it immediately to hand and do not need to go out and find it, or buy it, or make it. 

So how can we make similar productivity improvements for the knowledge worker?

We can do improve the productivity of knowledge work in much the same way. 

  1. Much as a manual worker no longer needs to do everything or make everything, a knowledge worker no longer needs to know everything. Some knowledge they keep in their heads, the remainder is made available to them through the knowledge management framework. So a knowledge worker, facing an unfamiliar task, no longer has to think "how should I address this task" and find out by trial and (costly) error, but can ask "how do others address this task" (or, even better, "what have we found is the most effective way to address this task").  In the assembly line, the manual effort is shared between many to make every product. In knowledge management, the learning and experience is shared between many to make every decision.

  2. The elimination of waste learning effort. It should be very easy for the knowledge worker to find the knowledge they need. They should not have to search a repository of jumbled documents, or trawl through a crowded twitter stream, or ask their manager, who asks his manager, who asks her manager ..... The intellectual work of sifting and synthesising knowledge should already have been done. 

  3. This includes the automation of much of the knowledge-finding, through powerful search and indexing, through provision of one knowledge base and not many, and through the ability to ask a network rather than asking individuals. 

  4. Finally knowledge management should provide the supply chain for the knowledge worker, and should be a lean and efficient system for delivering valuable actionable knowledge to the point and time of need. When the knowledge worker needs an answer or a process to follow,  they should find it immediately to hand and not need to go out and search laboriously for it, or make it up, or learn it the hard way.

It is through effective KM approaches such as this that we can approach Drucker's vision of increasing the productivity of the knowledge worker fifty-fold.

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