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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Workplace Productivity

One of the favorite quotes I used to use during presentations was Drucker -

The most important contribution of management in the 21st century will be to increase knowledge-worker productivity.

This is a big reason that I started Work Literacy.  I firmly believe that all management and workplace learning professionals need to be constantly looking at how we can improve the performance of knowledge workers.  This is probably THE challenge of the 21st century.

But about six months ago, I started not to use this quote.  When I look at concept workers and measuring their performance, I've come to realize that "workplace productivity" is not the right term and is not exactly where we should focus.

Complexity of Productivity for Knowledge Work

Productivity is defined as:

the ratio of the quantity and quality of units produced to the labor per unit of time

For some knowledge workers, we can reasonably define things this way.  For example, in a call center environment, it is reasonable to look at handle time, customer satisfaction, total sales, etc.  These numbers can be used with a Data Driven approach to supporting performance improvement.

However, when we look at concept workers, workplace productivity seems to be a fairly limiting phrase.  It seems to be equated with activity.  And Ben Franklin tells us:

Never confuse motion with action.

A couple of recent posts reinforced the complexity for me.  In Defining Productivity for the Knowledge Age, Jonathan Spira -

The wide range of tasks that knowledge workers undertake, combined with the fact that there are different levels of knowledge workers, ranging from those with a single skill to highly skilled workers who exercise independent thought and action most of the time, makes both the task of defining productivity and developing a management science somewhat tricky, to say the least.

In The Fun of Productivity Measures, Jack Vinson looks at the complexity of looking at knowledge worker productivity -

It's still an open question for me as to how to turn these business-level measures into something useful for knowledge workers.  There are obvious abuses you want to prevent, but beyond "don't be stupid" and "work as quickly as possible and pass it to the next person" how do you calculate how much someone has contributed to the successful completion of Project X?

I'm not quite sure what the replacement term is for workplace productivity or knowledge work productivity, but I'm that the current implication is somewhat misleading.  It also causes us to confuse activity and effectiveness.

Confusing Activity and Effect

One of my favorite examples of the challenge of activity and effect is from one of the people who I consider to be a guru on Knowledge Worker Effectiveness.  See Tom Davenport and Blogging - He is Wrong! for some more details, but basically in his book Thinking for a Living, Tom Davenport tells us:

Perhaps the biggest problem for blogging is the time it takes to read and write blogs. If anything this tool has detracted from productivity, not increased it. ...

In his blog (I guess he doesn't care about his own loss of productivity) he tells us (details in Getting Value from LinkedIn) -

I’ve been on LinkedIn for several years. I never initiate a connection. I can safely say that I have gotten nothing out of the site.

It's easy to look at something like blogging and fail to see how it can increase quality / quantity of output in exchange for the time involved.  Same thing is true for LinkedIn, especially if you don't know the right ways to use it.  I discussed a room full of management consultants who had the same feeling as Tom around LinkedIn (see LinkedIn for Conversations).  My guess is that someone like Tom is in a different league from most of us Knowledge Workers.  When we need help with a question, using our network is very effective (see below).  Having a well built network is very important to us.

As a side note on this whole story, I had forgot that in my Thomas Davenport and Blogging from back in 2007, I mentioned meeting Bill Ives via blogging as part of that post.  Coincidently, I recently engaged with him again because of some work I'm doing around social media for businesses.  The fact that we had met through blogging and then reconnected through a LinkedIn search with virtually no activity (other than reading blog posts) in between, is a great example of what happens with these tools.

I wonder if Tom has changed his opinion, but my guess is that lots of people will tell you that blogging and LinkedIn may seem like they take lots of time, but that they are critical for their workplace productivity.

Workplace Effectiveness and Networks

In Evaluating Performance of Concept Workers, I suggested that the way most concept workers are evaluated is by looking at signals such as:

  • Process - They went through a reasonable process to arrive at their conclusions.
  • Reasonable - Their conclusions are reasonable in your opinion (if you can formulate one).
  • Compare - If you took what they did and compared it to what you would expect from other similar performers, would they have arrived at the same result.

When you combine this with things like Alex Pentland - How Social Networks Work Best -

A recent MIT study found that in one organization the employees with the most extensive personal digital networks were 7% more productive than their colleagues

This actually does not come as much a surprise to me.  Concept workers need to reach out to people for knowledge work tasks in order to ensure they they are arriving at answers that will pass the evaluation factors above.  Thus, Leveraging Networks is Key Skill and likely is the most important Knowledge Worker Skill Gap. Knowing how to access Networks and Communities and tap into your Social Grid are keys.

Concluding Thoughts

It's a bit scary to me that while I consider our biggest challenges of the 21st century is improving the effectiveness of concept workers, I'm right now only able to say that there are meager methods of evaluating performance and a few (slim) known patterns for improving performance.  Certainly, this is going to be something that we will all need to be studying.

I look forward to some very interesting conversations and learning about all of this.

4 comments:

Howard said...

Tony;
Thanks for re-posing this question it's important! This is part of a post I made in response.
I suggest that significant organizational learning is the best measure of productivity in a knowledge intensive environment. The following 4 things could be measured as evidence of significant learning:
(1) An increase in organizational capabilities, and
(2) In innovation.
(3) The development of a maturity framework with evidence-(standards)-based practices for improving the quality of repeatable or routine processes.
(4)An increase in soft skills relating to non-routine and networking processes, which could be measured by the extent and the strength of an organization’s internal and external networks.

Tony Karrer said...

Howard - that's an interesting response and something I had not really thought about in the same way. Great point that there are likely intermediate measures that indicate an organization will have more productive knowledge workers.

There must be people doing work in this?

Bill said...

Tony - If you look in the index to Thinking for a Living under my name you will see a reference to a positive comment on blogging. This came about as I followed Tom in a session while he was writing the book. He made the same points on blogs as you quote and I had to follow him discussing the business value of blogging. After our conversation, Tom agreed that there was some value and mentioned it in the book. I have greta respect for Tom and usually agree with him but not always. Bill Ives

Tony Karrer said...

Bill - I have great respect for him as well - and I welcome discourse on it, especially with folks like yourself and Tom.