Improving Knowledge Work Processes

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A firm decided to redesign its research and development process. Because the effort was critical to its success, the firm applied two parallel approaches to the process. One was a classical reengineering effort in which a small group of managers and consultants designed a radically different way to do research. In the other approach, a small team of researchers began to collect the organization’s knowledge about the entire R&D process, regulatory approvals, and international variations. The knowledge was embedded in a series of documents and in a Weblike hypertext computer system. The company also hired several “corporate anthropologists” to study how researchers used the knowledge.

A year after the two efforts began, the reengineering effort was stalled. The new process vision was viewed as too ambitious at a time when many other aspects of the company were changing. Scientists muttered that no one could force them to practice “bad science.” The more subtle knowledge collection effort, however, seemed to be succeeding. Many researchers had reviewed the documents and suggested changes or additions to the knowledge base. A greater sense of cross-functional understanding seemed to prevail; regulators, for example, reported that scientists were more willing to supply them with early research information. Specific improvement levels, however, were difficult to measure with confidence.

This example illustrates how the classical top-down reengineering approach for improving administrative or operational work is often insufficiently participative or flexible for improving work by autonomous knowledge workers. In a study of knowledge work improvement projects in thirty organizations, we have found that although there are substantial benefits from viewing knowledge work from a process perspective, there are significant differences in how process concepts and methods are applied to knowledge work versus operational or administrative work.

In 1978, Peter Drucker wrote, “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.”1 By 2004, professionals and managers are projected to account for 25 percent of all U.S. jobs.2 More of an organization’s core competencies will center around managing knowledge and knowledge workers. Industrial growth and productivity gains will depend heavily on improvements in knowledge work.

Traditionally, organizations have tended either to ignore knowledge work improvement or to manage it in a hands-off manner.

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1. P.F. Drucker, The Age of Discontinuity (New York: Harper & Row, 1978).

2. U.S. Department of Labor Report, 1991.

3. “State of Reengineering Report” (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Computer Science Corporation, 1994).

4. T. Sakaiya, The Knowledge-Value Revolution (New York: Kodansha International, 1992).

5. J.B. Quinn, P. Anderson, and S. Finkelstein, “Managing Professional Intellect: Making the Most of the Best,” Harvard Business Review, volume 74, March–April 1996, pp. 71–80.

6. B. Levitt and J.G. March, “Organizational Learning,” Annual Review of Sociology, volume 14, 1988, pp. 319–340.

7. C. Nass, “Knowledge and Skills: Which Do Administrators Learn from Experience?,” Organization Science, volume 5, February 1994, pp. 38–50.

8. I. Nonaka, “The Dynamic Theory of Organizational Knowledge Creation,” Organization Science, volume 5, February 1994, pp. 14–37.

9. G. Davis et al., “Conceptual Model for Research on Knowledge Work” (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, MISRC working paper, MISRC-WP-91-10, 1991).

10. Mintzberg’s analysis of managerial work, characterizing it as highly variable with a start and stop nature, is consistent with our definition of knowledge work. See:

H. Mintzberg, Mintzberg on Management (New York: Free Press, 1989).

11. D. Leonard-Barton, Wellsprings of Knowledge (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1995).

12. T.H. Davenport, Process Innovation (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1993).

13. J.B. Quinn and M.N. Baily, “Information Technology: The Key to Service Performance,” Brookings Review, volume 12, Summer 1994, pp. 36–41.

14. For a broad discussion of the organizational implications of professional organizations, see:

H. Mintzberg, The Structuring of Organizations (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1979), pp. 348–379.

15. See, for example:

J.A. Raelin, The Clash of Culture: Managers Managing Professionals(Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1989).

16. Earl describes knowledge processes in the following way: “Knowledge processes are not necessarily executed routinely, but require some decision rules and assumptions about the environment and occasionally are referred to in a mystical way as processes. Examples include strategy-making and innovation. The latter are difficult to analyze, model, and predict. Their flows are irregular, interrupted, and sometimes chaotic. These characteristics can be both bad and good. They are, as implied, more intensive of knowledge.” See:

M.J. Earl, “The New and the Old of Business Process Redesign,” Journal of Strategic Information Systems, volume 3, 1994, pp. 5–22.

17. This information is from interviews with Chrysler executives and J. Bennet, “The Designer Who Saved Chrysler,” New York Times, 30 January 1994), pp. 1, 6.

18. For example, one author wrote, “Process objectives must be quantified as specific targets for change.” Another advocate of more traditional operational business change wrote, “It is essential that the breakthrough goal be bottom-line and measurable.” See:

Davenport (1993), p. 128.

See also:

R.H. Schaffer, The Breakthrough Strategy (New York: Harper Business, 1988), p. 70; and

S.L. Jarvenpaa and D.B. Stoddard, “Reengineering Design Is Radical; Reengineering Change Is Not” (Babson Park, Massachusetts: Babson College, working paper, 1995).

19. Computer Science Corporation (1994).

20. T.H. Davenport, “Business Process Reengineering: Where It’s Been, Where It’s Going,” in W. Kettinger and V. Grover, eds., Business Process Change (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Idea Group Publishing, 1995); and

M. Hammer and S. Stanton, The Reengineering Revolution: A Handbook(New York: Harper Business, 1995).

21. Quinn et al. (1996).

22. M. Hammer and J.A. Champy, Reengineering the Corporation (New York: Harper Business, 1993).

23. Davis et al. (1991).

24. Discussion moderated by Joseph Podolsky in Hewlett-Packard’s Information Systems Group, Palo Alto, California, 1995.

25. Hammer and Champy (1993), p. 207.

26. D.G. Ancona and D.E. Caldwell, “Cross-Functional Teams: Blessing or Curse for New Product Development?,” in T.A. Kochan and M. Useem, eds., Transforming Organizations (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), pp. 154–166; and

D.B. Stoddard, “Information Technology and Design/Manufacturing Integration” (Boston: Harvard Business School, doctoral dissertation, 1991).

27. Most of the projects involved attempt to change microlevel activities, for example, and many also involved substantial use of outsiders in the process design. There was a general desire to evaluate teams or process groups as well as individuals, and to evaluate performance more frequently. However, most of these reengineering-oriented projects had not yet been fully implemented. It may be that over time these projects will face the common phenomenon in reengineering of “revolutionary design, evolutionary implementation” that has been identified in other research. See:

D.B. Stoddard and S.L. Jarvenpaa, “Business Process Redesign: Tactics for Managing Radical Change,” Journal of Management Information Systems, volume 12, Summer 1995, pp. 81–107.

28. Of course, in business processes other than knowledge work there is also fragmentation of expertise. However, the firms we have observed in reengineering initiatives do not feel as compelled to represent all variations on the design team.

29. M. Burawoy, “The Anthropology of Industrial Work,” Annual Review of Anthropology, 1979, pp. 231–266; see also:

J.C. Lave and E. Wegner, “Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation” (Palo Alto, California: Institute for Research on Learning, 1990).

30. The firms were a subset of the thirty firms that participated in our research project on knowledge work improvement (see Table 2).

31. I. Nonaka, “The Knowledge-Creating Company,” Harvard Business Review, volume 69, November–December 1991, pp. 96–104.

32. T.H. Davenport, “Need Radical Innovation and Continuous Improvement? Integrate Process Reengineering and TQM,” Planning Review, volume 21, May–June 1993, pp. 6–12.


This research project was supported by the Ernst & Young Center for Business Innovation and by the sponsors of the “Mastering the Information Environment” research program. We are grateful for their financial assistance and for their willingness to serve as research sites.

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