Boosting the productivity of knowledge workers

In the latest McKinsey Quarterly, Eric Matson and Laurence Prusak have a brief article on Boosting the productivity of knowledge workers.  They highlight five key barriers that come out of their research on knowledge workers and their interactions.

Organizations around the world struggle to crack the code for improving the effectiveness of managers, salespeople, scientists, and others whose jobs consist primarily of interactions—with other employees, customers, and suppliers—and complex decision making based on knowledge and judgment.1 The stakes are high: raising the productivity of these workers, who constitute a large and growing share of the workforce in developed economies, represents a major opportunity for companies, as well as for countries with low birthrates that hope to maintain GDP growth.

Their key thesis is that since knowledge workers spend half their time interacting with others, anything that gets in the way of effective interactions would be a barrier to productivity.  They highlight five common barriers that they have discovered in their research, and they describe one or two examples of what companies have done to overcome these barriers.  I also like the extensive comments on the article (60+) that agree / disagree; suggest additional barriers; etc. 

Jersey Barrier & GuardrailThe barriers:

  1. Physical.  Barriers of distance that merely keep people from being able to easily work together.
  2. Technical.  Missing or ineffective tools (for collaboration) - more pronounced when people are physically separated.
  3. Social or Cultural.  This is one of the areas that is underappreciated in its importance.  If the culture does not value the interactions (speaking up, asking questions, talking to one another) then it won't happen, no matter how much you talk about it.  (That said, John Kotter talks about culture as the last step of a change process that reinforces the right behaviors all the way through.)
  4. Contextual. These are barriers that are created by lack of understanding one another due to discipline or role within the organization.
  5. Temporal.  This is a funny one - not enough time to have effective interactions.  But what happens when the interactions are faulty or missing?  Everything takes longer, so you don't have time the next time around.  Vicious cycle ensues.

I'm not where where this research is going next, but one of the thoughts I have is around the definition of "productivity" in this context.  At some level, all of these interactions (50% of their time!) have to be associated with projects that are active in the business.  One of the things I see in project management - and that I've mentioned here - is that there is just too much going on: there are too many projects.  As a result, everyone involved is overwhelmed with work, and no one is able to describe true priorities in terms of bringing projects to completion or to Kill decision points.  Throw all these barriers (plus some others) together with this project system, and it is no wonder that knowledge workers are struggling to improve their productivity. 

I hope the further research of Matson and Prusak delves into more of the root causes of the productivity jam.  I think the barriers to interaction are a symptom of the deeper problems.

Thanks Craig Roth and the KM Experts group on LinkedIn for pointing to the article.

[Photo: "Jersey Barrier & Guardrail" by Brick Artisan]

1 Comment(s)

Bill Bennett Author Profile Page said:

Your point about there being "too much going on" is right on the money.

By its nature, knowledge work is often complex, as you say it can get overwhelming inside companies and organisations. I think this explains why consultants and outside contractors are often so effective - there are usually strict lines around their responsibilities and involvement. What's more, because they often charge on a time-basis, people paying consultants are very focused on using them effectively.

I suggest if company managers viewed direct reports as 'paid by the hour' consultants, they'd structure things more effectively.

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