The Mysterious Art and Science of Knowledge-Worker Performance

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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.”1 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.

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1. P. Drucker, “Knowledge-Worker Productivity: The Biggest Challenge,” California Management Review 41 (winter 1999): 79–94.

2. For the impact of work-space design, information technology and organizational factors on knowledge-work processes, see T.H. Davenport, S.L. Jarvenpaa and M.C. Beers,“Improving Knowledge Work Processes,” Sloan Management Review 37 (summer 1996): 53–65; for more on knowledge workers, see “The Knowledge Workplace,” Gartner, Feb. 29, 2000,, and related Gartner reports; for more on group knowledge-worker creativity, see D. Leonard and W. Swap, “When Sparks Fly: Igniting Creativity in Groups” (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1999).

3. The conference was cohosted in March 2001 by the Accenture Institute for Strategic Change and the Stanford Center on Work, Technology and Organization.

4. Autonomy has long been viewed as a critical variable in job satisfaction for many types of workers. See, for example, J.R. Hackman and G.R. Oldham, “Work Redesign” (Boston: Addison-Wesley, 1980); and B.D. Janz, J.A. Colquitt and R.A. Noe, “Knowledge Worker Team Effectiveness: The Role of Autonomy, Interdependence, Team Development and Contextual Support Variables,” Personnel Psychology 50 (winter 1997): 877–904.

5. D. Cohen and L. Prusak, “In Good Company: How Social Capital Makes Organizations Work” (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2001). Two studies show the impact of work relationships on the development of new ideas: T.L. Albrecht and D.T. Hall, “Facilitating Talk About New Ideas: The Role of Personal Relationships in Organizational Innovation,” Communication Monographs 58 (1991): 273–288; and P.R. Monge, M.D. Cozzens and N.S. Contractor, “Communication and Motivational Predictors of the Dynamics of Organizational Innovation,” Organizational Science 3 (1992): 250–274.

6. This phenomenon has been widely documented in articles such as R. Cross and L. Baird, “Technology Is Not Enough: Improving Performance by Building Organizational Memory,” Sloan Management Review 41 (spring 2000): 68–78; and R. McDermott, “Why Information Technology Inspired but Cannot Deliver Knowledge Management,” California Management Review 41 (summer 1999): 103–117.

7. Much has been written about groupware and other technology to support virtual teams. Early work is best summarized in R. Johansen, “Groupware: Computer Support for Business Teams” (New York: Free Press, 1998); D.L. Duarte and N.T. Snyder, “Mastering Virtual Teams: Strategies, Tools and Techniques That Succeed” (New York: Jossey-Bass, 2000); J. Lipnack and J. Stamps, “Virtual Teams: Reaching Across Space, Time and Organizations With Technology” (New York: Wiley, 1997); J.S. Olson and S. Teasley, “Groupware in the Wild: Lessons Learned From a Year of Virtual Collocation,” Proceedings of the Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work (November 1996): 419–427.

8. T.G. Gill, “Early Expert Systems: Where Are They Now?” MIS Quarterly 19 (March 1995): 51–81.

9. See, for example, M.L. Markus and M. Keil, “If We Build It, They Will Come: Designing Information Systems That People Want To Use,” Sloan Management Review 35 (summer 1994): 11–25.

10. T.H. Davenport and J. Glaser, “Just-in-Time Delivery Comes to Knowledge Management,” Harvard Business Review 80 (July 2002): 107–111.

11. J.S. Brown and P. Duguid, “Creativity Versus Structure: A Useful Tension,” MIT Sloan Management Review 42 (summer 2001): 93–94.

12. Microsoft, for example, pays considerable attention to recruiting processes but has no central approach for improving knowledge-worker effectiveness once people are hired. See R.W. Selby and M.A. Cusumano, “Microsoft Secrets” (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998) for a discussion of recruiting processes.

13. Many aspects of IDEO’s culture, including its work-space design, are described in T. Kelley, “The Art of Innovation: Lessons in Creativity From IDEO, America’s Leading Design Firm” (New York: Doubleday, 2001).

14. M. Schrage has explored the importance of prototyping in his book “Serious Play: How the World’s Best Companies Simulate To Innovate” (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1999).

15. Davenport, “Improving Knowledge Work Processes.”

16. Cohen, “In Good Company”; and R.J. Thomas, “What Machines Can’t Do: Politics and Technology in the Industrial Enterprise” (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1994).

17. R. Buchanan, “Brave New Work,” Details, February 1995, 94–99; and F. Anderton, “Virtual Officing Comes in From the Cold,” New York Times, Dec. 17, 1998, sec. F, p. 1.


Thanks to David De Long, who worked with us on the early phases of this research.

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