Thus far, researchers and managers alike have a very limited understanding of what makes knowledge workers tick. But by manipulating two key leverage points, companies can begin to shift the balance from art toward science.
As far back as 1959, Peter Drucker insisted on the need to pay more attention to knowledge work and the people doing such work. Some 40 years later, perhaps in frustration, he threw down the gauntlet to academics and practitioners alike with the claim that, when it comes to our understanding of knowledge-worker productivity "we are in the year 2000 roughly where we were in the year 1900 in terms of [understanding how to improve] the productivity of the manual worker" Knowledge work thus far has had no Frederick Taylor or Henry Ford; at best, the subject has been explored by approximations of William Morris and the Italian Futurists (artists who expressed an understanding of industrial developments in the late 19th and early 20th centuries) -- such as the architect Frank Gehry, the conceptual artist Jenny Holzer and the design firm DEGW.
Most businesspeople today would agree with Drucker about the importance of knowledge work. They understand that it is at the heart of innovation, which is itself the key to long-term organizational sustainability and growth. It is also a major operational concern: If companies can enhance knowledge-worker productivity in this century anywhere near as much as they did with manual labor over the course of the last one (an increase of roughly 50 times), the payoffs will be astronomical. In the shorter term, recruiting and retaining the best knowledge workers are vital to organizational success. Finally, a focus on knowledge-worker performance is a way of uniting what are often separate tasks, such as strategic planning, organizational design and IT investment.
Given these facts, we have found the problem of knowledge-worker performance, as Robert Oppenheimer once said (for good or ill) about building the atom bomb, one that is too sweet to ignore. And in the spirit of the artists concerned with industrialism a century ago -- but with an eye toward more scientific advances -- we spent more than a year investigating the subject. (For an overview of our work, see "About the Research.") Among other things, we learned that sweet problems are not always tractable. Truly sweet problems may require the creation of radically new concepts and tools before they can be solved.
And while we readily admit that we haven't produced the intellectual equivalent of the atom bomb, we haven't exactly bombed, either. The first part of this article can be read as a series of dispatches -- postcards from the field -- that identify the five key issues we saw companies struggling with in their handling of knowledge work. In the second half, we offer a framework that we believe can help organizations think more clearly about how they might go about improving knowledge-worker performance, an objective that should be at the top of most corporate agendas.
First Issue: The determinants of knowledge-worker performance are becoming clear. How to integrate them remains murky. Following our review of research on knowledge work and the determinants of white-collar productivity, we formulated a simple hypothesis: that three major factors -- management and organization, information technology and workplace design -- influence the performance of knowledge workers and knowledge-based organizations. (2)
At one level, our proposition seemed so elementary as to preclude further investigation. After all, research going back decades on all kinds of knowledge work has shown that things like structure, management style and compensation influence performance. And although debates still rage about the impact of IT on productivity in the aggregate, we encountered dozens of studies confirming the idea that new technology helps workers accomplish more complex tasks than they could in the past. The results of research on workplace design were less consistent, but case studies and surveys suggest that physical setting and workplace arrangements have a measurable effect on knowledge work. Indeed, at a conference we organized to engage academic and practitioner experts, there was "violent agreement" about the salience of the three factors. (3)
What made our hypothesis worthy of further research, however, was the recognition that the three factors have in surprisingly few instances been addressed in an integrated way. Some companies are putting great emphasis on one of the factors, especially IT -- witness, for example, Microsoft's recent creation of a "knowledge-worker solutions" group. And even in the post-dot-bomb era, many companies are toiling to create the functional equivalent of a software Swiss army knife to integrate communication, collaboration, knowledge management, virtual teaming, e-mail and instant messaging. Yet few (if any) have figured out how to get knowledge workers to actually use these tools. Thus far, it all amounts to expensive e-mail.
Work-space manufacturers, architectural firms and design consultants are exceptions that acknowledge the interplay of organizational, technological and physical factors. But we found ourselves wondering if what several managers said to us might indeed be true: that furniture makers did their research solely to sell more chairs. Perhaps that isn't fair, but the fact remains that the still emerging discipline of knowledge management awaits a model or methodology that can bridge the space between IT, workplace design, business strategy and people management.
Second Issue: Many organizations resist the idea that segmentation of knowledge workers is necessary. One major obstacle in the way of developing a useful model lies in the generic use of the term "knowledge worker." We came to this conclusion by reflecting on the comparability of different kinds of work. For example, can an organization apply the same solutions to a hardware-engineering team just because they worked for …