Informal Learning — Davenport

February 4, 2005

12. Let Them All Be Power Users

“To make knowledge work productive will be the great management task of this century, just as to make manual work productive was the great management task of the last century.”

Peter Drucker wrote those words back in 1968, later calling knowledge-worker productivity the decisive competitive factor in the world economy. Let’s assume Drucker was—as usual—right. If knowledge workers are the horses pulling the economic plow, have corporations maximized their horsepower? What have organizations done to help knowledge workers become more effective?

Not much, it turns out. Most corporate productivity efforts address production or administrative work. Knowledge workers have largely escaped scrutiny because they often work autonomously, and much of their labor is invisible, taking place inside their brains. Yet increasing amounts of knowledge work—an average of three hours and 14 minutes per day—involves visible, measurable activities performed with electronic communications (see the exhibit “Ripe for Improvement”). Knowledge workers read and write, talk informally and in meetings, and use technology to manage their personal information and knowledge environments. That last type of activity can be observed, calibrated, and improved—but only if employees are shown how to do so.

Companies load up knowledge workers with desktop and laptop computers, personal digital assistants, cell phones, wireless communicators, e-mail, voice mail, and instant messaging—then leave them to their own devices, so to speak. Employees receive little or no guidance about how to apply those technologies to their work. And the devices remain largely unintegrated.

As a result, most people aren’t very good at managing their personal information. My informal surveys suggest that only about 1% of knowledge workers feel they have mastered this area, and only 4% have received substantial help from their employers. In short, companies’ most valuable employees spend 40% of the workday doing something they don’t do well and so fail to extract the most from their stock in trade: knowledge. It’s a bit like bricklaying before Frank Gilbreth.

A few organizations are wising up. Information technology companies, which after all have something to prove, are heavily represented among the first movers. Intel, for example, has launched an ambitious internal eWorkforce program that segments the company’s knowledge workers into types, defines some key tasks (such as arranging and running a global meeting), and supplies education, coaching, and tailored applications to help workers perform those tasks better. Cisco Systems’ Change the Way We Work initiative teaches employees how to exploit new personal-information technologies. Microsoft has undertaken both research and internal IT efforts to enhance “information work productivity.” Outside the technology ranks, Capital One has turned its IT function loose on the problem. And Raytheon’s Space and Airborne Systems division has introduced education programs and policies to turn the company’s employees into power users of communication tools.

There are, as yet, no best practices for improving personal-information management. So companies awash with knowledge workers should be experimenting. Internal experts may be the best source for this particular curriculum. Managers might identify a job or process that is both important and knowledge intensive, then observe how the most and least productive employees attack it. Or they can simply ask the most effective users of personal technologies in their organizations what they do. Finally, remember that technology isn’t everything. Knowledge workers should also learn how to modify behaviors, priorities, and relationships. Knowledge, after all, is a yeasty, mutable substance, and communication requires nuance as well as speed. The brain remains knowledge workers’ principal work space. Employees whose external information environment is well managed can keep that internal environment clutter free and operating at peak efficiency.

Thomas H. Davenport (tdavenport@babson.edu) is a professor and the director of research at Babson Executive Education in Babson Park, Massachusetts. He is a coauthor of What’s the Big Idea? Creating and Capitalizing on the Best Management Thinking (Harvard Business School Press, 2003).

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