By Fred Nickols
to T. J. Elliott, until recently the CLO at Educational Testing Service, I was
recently pointed to an article on the McKinsey & Company site titled
“Boosting the Productivity of Knowledge Workers” (Matson and Prusak, 2010).
title reminded me of something important: to focus on improving the
productivity of knowledge workers is
the wrong focus and is, in fact, counterproductive. The focus of productivity
improvement efforts should be on the work
not the worker.
productivity of knowledge work can indeed, and should indeed, be improved. But
what about the workers? What is to be done there? Well, as Peter Drucker so
eloquently put it so many years ago, “The great management task of this century
will be to make knowledge work more productive and the knowledge worker more
achieving” (1969, p. 290).
is well-equipped to do the former and struggles to do the latter. It still
wears the blinders of the industrial era.
article in question asserts that “knowledge work involves more diverse and
amorphous tasks than do production or clerical positions, where the relatively
clear-cut, predictable activities make jobs easier to automate or streamline.”
That is true enough, but a critical point is left unsaid; namely, that
knowledge workers must configure
their responses to the situation at hand instead of simply carrying out a
prefigured routine. Knowledge workers must figure out what to do instead of
doing what someone else has already figured out.
it is true that knowledge workers must configure their responses to the
situation at hand, what does that configuration process look like? Better yet,
what should it look like?
a response to a given situation begins with specifying the result or outcome to
be achieved. To specify a result is to state what should be achieved. Specifying a result is followed by
specifying its value, its importance, its contribution; in other words, why the result should be achieved.
what and why in hand, attention turns next to when: When is the result to be achieved? Next
comes how. What actions will lead to
or produce the desired result? What is left, of course, are the matters of who and where. Who, what, why, when, where, and how—these tenets of
journalism and guidelines for investigative reporting are also the key elements
that must be determined in configuring a course of action that will lead to a
particular result or outcome.
The “Five Ws” (and one
H) were memorialized by Rudyard Kipling in his Just So Stories (1902), in which a poem accompanying the tale of
“The Elephant's Child” opens with:
I keep six honest
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.
would seem Kipling anticipated the shift to knowledge work and the basic means
of making it more productive.
P.F. (1969). The age of discontinuity.
New York, NY: Harper and Row.
R. (1902). Just so stories. Toronto,
Canada: George S. Morang & Co.
E., and Prusak, L, (2010, Sept.). “Boosting the productivity of knowledge
workers.” Retrieved from http://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/boosting-the-productivity-of-knowledge-workers
About the Author
Fred Nickols, CPT,
is a knowledge worker, writer, consultant, and former executive who spent 20
years in the U.S. Navy, retiring as a decorated chief petty officer. In the
private sector, he worked as a consultant and then held executive positions
with two former clients. Currently, Fred is the managing partner of Distance
Consulting LLC. His website is
home to the award-winning Knowledge Workers’
Tool Room and more than 200
free articles, book chapters, and papers. Fred is a longtime member of ISPI and
writes this monthly column for PerformanceXpress.