Why Don’t We Know More About Knowledge?

We may be in the second decade of the knowledge-worker era, but companies still have much to learn about what makes such workers tick.

More than 15 years ago, Peter Drucker heralded the beginning of the knowledge era. Since then, companies have made many attempts to leverage what they know and to increase their workers’ productivity. In order to bring together vast amounts of explicit knowledge, they have invested large sums in databases and content repositories; in order to help people track down others with tacit expertise, they have experimented with open offices, mobile technologies and online directories.

Some of this has helped; much of it has been a waste of resources. In fact, five years ago Drucker likened our understanding of knowledge-worker productivity today to our understanding of manual-labor productivity in 1900. Translation: We’ve got a long way to go.

To reorient managers more fruitfully, SMR asked three leading management thinkers to explain what we’ve learned and how we can do better in the future. Their contrarian responses bring clarity from a bird’s-eye view, while also suggesting ways to begin making progress on the ground.

Focus on the Process

In recent years, companies have tried a variety of approaches to resolving the supposed intractability of improved knowledge-worker productivity — from hiring chief knowledge officers to establishing knowledge-management programs. None of these efforts helped very much and most have now faded into obscurity.

But we should not despair. In fact, we actually know quite a lot about knowledge workers and their productivity. We know, for example, that the old dichotomy between manual workers and knowledge workers is not very meaningful. The best definition I have found for “knowledge worker” comes (unsurprisingly) from Drucker himself: “someone who knows more about his or her job than anyone else in the organization.” By this definition, the manufacturing worker who diagnoses and solves production problems, the utility linesman who schedules his own day and the warehouse worker who evaluates vendor performance all perform knowledge work and must be considered at least in part to be knowledge workers. Such people are increasingly the norm rather than the exception; fewer and fewer workers perform routine tasks that do not draw upon accumulated knowledge and expertise. To paraphrase Richard Nixon, “We are all knowledge workers now.”

A second important discovery is that the question “How do we increase knowledge-worker productivity?” is the wrong one to ask. The very concept of knowledge-worker productivity has little meaning.

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