Transitioning From Manual Work to Knowledge Work

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What is knowledge work pro­ductivity and why is it important? I first read about knowledge workers in 1993 in Peter Drucker's book, Post-Capitalist Society. He had been speak­ing and writing about it for decades, but the term was new to me at that time. It's still not discussed often enough in business circles. Management scholar and consultant Thomas Davenport surfaced this after he authored Thinking for a Living in 2005, and even posed on his blog the question, "Was Drucker Wrong?"

Drucker's core message was that the economy used to run on manual work. Now, it runs on knowledge work, which accounts for and generates the largest number of jobs, must be made more produc­tive for our workers, companies and societies to maintain and improve their prosperity.

Knowledge work "NW" is how individuals and groups use ideas, expertise, information, and relationships to get things done. It includes tasks such as brainstorming, analysis, project management, and personal coaching. "NW" is the effectiveness and efficiency of these tasks. To illustrate, people who are farmers, truck drivers, and assembly line workers are manual workers. They work hard for a living, and when they finish their day, it's visibly clear what they've accomplished. People who are researchers, analysts, and managers are knowledge workers. They also work hard for a living. However, when knowledge workers finish their day, their achievements are not always as clear. In fact, because of the ever-changing nature of "NW", it's conceivable for them to work all day on something that was important in the morning but no longer important by dinner time.

Even though knowledge work can be highly productive, the nature of the work has made it difficult to manage systematically using tools that were designed for manual work. For one thing, the work is largely invis­ible because much of it happens in people's heads. For another, consistent with Parkinson's Law and the Peter Principle, knowledge work tends to expand to fill the time avail­able, staff tends to accumulate, and knowledge workers sometimes rise to their level of incompetence. Like the old advertising adage, half of a company's knowledge work is wasted but it's often difficult to know which half.

Inextricably linked to the knowledge work productivity problem is the information technology productivity problem. Referred to as the produc­tivity paradox, and attributed to Nobel Laureate economist Robert Solow, large investments in information technology have unfortunately contributed very little to our productivity. In the same way that knowledge work has often expanded to fill the time available, digital information has expanded to fill our available computational, storage, and bandwidth capacity. The main tool of the knowledge worker, the computer, and knowledge work­ers themselves have struggled to be productive even though both possess astonishing potential in this area.

Improving "NW" productivity has so far been difficult. How do you manage Enterprise productivity when people go to meetings, ana­lyze data, answer emails, talk on the phone, do research, write a report, interview a potential employee, make a presentation, or sit in their office to come up with a new idea? With manual work, when waste is generated, it is seen by everyone. With "NW", when effort is wasted, it's not nearly as visible. Just as with farming, manufacturing, and truck driving, there needs to be a litmus test for productive "NW." Ultimately, these results should be judged based on whether one of the following oc­curs:

·   When something successful that never existed previously is now up and running.

·   When something successful that existed previously has been improved or expanded.

·   When something unsuccessful that existed previously has been stopped.

The productivity realized by achieving one of these three outputs can then be judged based on the speed with which it is accomplished and the cost required to finish the job. Making the successful transition from productive manual work in the 20th century to productive knowledge work in the 21st century requires thinking about and synthesizing several key areas:

·   The nature of manual work

·   The nature of knowledge work

·   The economics of the next wave

·   Moving from manual work to knowledge work productivity

·   Factoring in the difference between information and knowledge

·   Reinventing Enterprises using a knowledge work productivity management system

This needs to be managed systematically to accelerate change, reduce costs, and improve sustainable results. It is central to achieving better performance from your company, building more fun into your company, and-as a byproduct over time-creating a better society.

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Jack Bergstrand has 1 articles online

Jack Bergstrand is an expert in enterprise reinvention and knowledge work productivity management. He founded Brand Velocity, Inc., the first company ever prototyped using knowledge work productivity principles, and created the Strategic Profiling® instrument, a tool to help firms accelerate and improve important enterprise projects. To learn more about his book, "Reinvent Your Enterprise," visit:

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Transitioning From Manual Work to Knowledge Work

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This article was published on 2010/03/31