Summary: Knowledge-Worker Productivity: The Biggest Challenge

Knowledege ManagementKnowledge WorkProductivity
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January 1, 1999
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The most important, and indeed the truly unique, contribution of management in the 20th century was the fifty-fold increase in the productivity of the manual worker in manufacturing. The most important contribution management needs to make in the 21st century is similarly to increase the productivity of knowledge work and knowledge workers. The most valuable asset of a 21st-century institution (whether business or non- business) will be its knowledge workers and their productivity.


Knowledge-worker productivity is the biggest of the 21st-century man- agement challenges.


Task analysis
Frederick Winslow Taylor
Assembly Line
Henry Ford
Scientific Management
Quality Circle
Continuous Improvement (Kaizen)
Quality Control
W. Edward Deming
Total Quality Management
W. Edward Deming
Value Chain
Michael Porter


“work enlargement,” “work enrichment,” and “job rotation” all of which use Taylor’s methods to lessen the worker’s fatigue and thereby increase the work- er’s productivity.
The best example, however, is W. Edward Deming’s “Total Quality Man- agement.” What Deming did—and what makes Total Quality Management effec- tive—is to analyze and organize the job exactly the way Taylor did. However, he also added Quality Control (around 1940) that was based on a statistical theory that was only developed ten years after Taylor’s death. Finally, in the 1970s, Deming substituted closed-circuit television and computer simulation for Knowledge-Worker Productivity:The Biggest Challenge Taylor’s stopwatch and motion photos. Deming’s Quality Control Analysts are the spitting image of Taylor’s Efficiency Engineers and function the same way.


The Idea Of Productivity Throughout History

Throughout history, there have been steady advances in what we today call “productivity” (The term itself is barely fifty years old).
It was axiomatic throughout history that workers could produce more only by working harder or by working longer hours. The 19th century economists disagreed about most things as much as economists do today. However, there y all agreed—from David Ricardo through Karl Marx—that there are enormous differences in skill between workers, but there are none in respect to productivity other than between hard workers and lazy ones, or between physically strong workers and weak ones.

Before Industrial Revolution, Technology Was The Key Lever Of Economic Development

All earlier economic development had been based on technological innovation—first in France in the 18th century, then in Great Britain from 1760 until 1850, and finally in the new economic Great Powers, Germany and the U.S., in the second half of the 19th century. The non-Western countries that developed after the Second World War, beginning with Japan, eschewed technological innovation.

Frederick Winslow Taylor pioneered manual work productivity

First, we must take a look at where we are. It was only a little over a hundred years ago that for the first time an educated person actually looked at manual work and manual workers, and then began to study both. The Greek poet Hesiod (eighth century B.C.) and the Roman poet Virgil (700 years later) sang about the work of the farmer. Theirs are still among the finest poems in any language, but neither the work they sang about nor their farmers bear even the most remote resemblance to reality, nor were they meant to have any. Nei- ther Hesiod nor Virgil ever held a sickle in their hands, ever herded sheep, or even looked at the people who did either. When Karl Marx, 1900 years after Virgil, came to write about manual work and manual workers, he too never looked at either, nor had he ever as much as touched a machine. The first man to do both—that is, to work as a manual worker and then to study manual work—was Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856-1915).
In the decade after Taylor first looked at work and studied it, the productivity of the manual worker began its unprecedented rise. Since then, it has been going up steadily at the rate of 3% per annum compound—which means it has been risen fifty-fold since Taylor. On this achievement rest all of the economic gains and social gains of the 20th century’s . The productivity of the manual worker has created what we now call “developed” economies.

Knowledge Work Is Different Than Manual Work

The worker on the automobile assembly line who puts on a wheel is programmed by the simultaneous arrival of the car’s chassis on one line and the wheel on the other line. The farmer who plows a field in preparation for plant- ing does not climb out of his tractor to take a telephone call, to attend a meeting, or to write a memo. What is to be done is always obvious in manual work.
Engineers are constantly being pulled off their task by having to write a report or rewrite it, by being asked to attend a meeting, and so on. The job of the salesperson in the department store is to serve the cus- tomer and to provide the merchandise the customer is interested in or should become interested in. Instead, the salesperson spends an enormous amount of time on paperwork, on checking whether merchandise is in stock, on checking when and how it can be delivered, and so on—all things that take salespeople away from the customer and do not add anything to their productivity in doing what salespeople are being paid for, which is to sell and to satisfy the customer.




  • Materials-based
  • Routine
  • Telling worker how to do the job
  • Achieving minimum quality and maximum quantity
  • Viewed as a cost center


1. The first step in making the manual worker more productive is to look at the task and to analyze its constituent motions. 2. The next step is to record each motion, the physical effort it takes, and the time it takes. 3. Then motions that are not needed can be eliminated;



  • Knowledge-based
  • Non-routine / innovation
  • Define what the “task” is
  • Learning
  • Teaching
  • Change in attitude in the individual and the organization
  • Define what quality is
  • Achieving maximum quality
  • Viewed as an asset


  1. Prioritization. Knowledge worker productivity demands that we ask the question: “What is the task?”
  2. Autonomy. It demands that we impose the responsibility for their productivity on the individual knowledge workers themselves. Knowledge workers have to manage themselves.
  3. Innovation. Continuing innovation has to be part of the work, the task and the responsibility of knowledge workers.
  4. Learning. Knowledge work requires continuous learning on the part of the knowledge worker, but equally continuous teaching on the part of the knowledge worker.
  5. Quality. Productivity of the knowledge worker is not — at least not primarily — a matter of the quantity of output. Quality is at least as important.
  6. Purpose. Finally, knowledge worker productivity requires that the knowledge worker is both seen and treated as an “asset” rather than a “cost.” It requires that knowledge workers want to work for the organization in preference to all other opportunities.



  • Manual / Knowledge Hybrid

What makes Drucker’s knowledge worker productivity factors particularly interesting is twofold. First, almost all of the factors are the exact opposite of what makes a manual worker productive. Second, many knowledge workers today still organize their careers more like manual workers and almost exclusively focus on efficiency,

working hard, and high daily output.


How To Begin

How To Do A Knowledge Work Pilot

1. The first step is to find an area in the organization where there is a group of knowledge workers who are receptive. (The orthopedic surgeons, for instance, first had their new ideas tried out by four physicians who had long argued for radical changes.) 2. The next step is to work consistently, patiently, and for a considerable length of time with this small group. The first attempts, even if greeted with great enthusiasm, will almost certainly run into all kinds of unexpected problems. It is only after the productivity of this small group of knowledge workers has been substantially increased that the new ways of doing the work can be extended to a larger area, if not to the entire organization. At this point, the main problems will be known, such as where resistance can be expected (e.g., from middle management) or what changes in task, organization, measurements, or attitudes are needed for full effectiveness. To bypass the pilot stage—and there is always pressure to do so—only means that the mistakes become public while the successes stay hid- den. It only means discrediting the entire enterprise. If properly piloted, a great deal can be done to improve knowledge-worker productivity.


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