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Make your knowledge workers more productive

Jordan Cohen and Julian Birkinshaw

Harvard Business Review

5 September 2013

 

With scarcely any help from management, knowledge workers can increase their productivity by 20 per cent. When we interviewed 45 such people across 39 companies in eight industries in the United States and Europe, we found that by identifying low-value tasks to either drop completely, delegate to someone else or outsource, the average worker gained back roughly one day a week they could use for more important tasks. (We detail this process in our HBR article, "Make Time for the Work That Matters.")

If that's what your team can achieve without you, just imagine what they might do with your support.

Yet here is the challenge you face as a senior executive: you cannot manage your knowledge workers in the traditional and intrusive way you might have done with manual workers. Knowledge workers own the means of production — their brains. So large-scale re-engineering programs, productivity drives, and changes to the incentive system are unlikely to work: they can easily be resisted, ignored or gamed. But just letting your knowledge workers figure things out for themselves isn't a good model either — it is an abrogation of your responsibilities as a manager, and it allows people to either shirk their duties or lose focus chasing too many priorities.

You need to find the middle ground: judicious interventions that allow knowledge workers to help themselves. Our research and work with companies suggest three broad approaches you can try, each with its own pros and cons:

1. Enact a sharp "decree" to force a specific change in behaviour. In 2011, Thierry Andretta, the CEO of French fashion company Lanvin, announced an initiative called "no email Wednesdays" because he thought people had stopped actually talking to each other. Atomic Object, a software company in Michigan, put in place a standing-only rule in meetings, to keep them focused and short. Marissa Mayer, Yahoo's CEO, ended the company's work-from-home policy to foster a more collaborative, innovative environment. Such decrees are risky; by forcing people out of their daily routine, you are bound to upset a few of them. For a decree to work, you need to be able to enforce it effectively, have a good reason to do it, and a thick skin. You should also position your decree as temporary — a way of forcing a change in behaviour for a few months or a year, so that people can subsequently figure out for themselves if this new way of working is sensible.

2. Build smart support systems. Smarter support systems are intended to de-bureaucratise work and to help people prioritise more value-added work. While they take some time to work through, their benefits are likely to be felt for many years. There are two main approaches: building something new or taking something else away.

In terms of building something new, consider the notion of task-sourcing and hyper specialisation. This is where a knowledge worker farms out specific tasks to a low-cost provider, so she can focus on more value-added work. One of us (Jordan) had personal responsibility for setting up such a service in Pfizer - it became known as PfizerWorks, and its aim was simply to help employees be more effective in their jobs. Now whenever a PfizerWorks user decides she needs support, she simply pushes a button, describes her need in a pop-up window, and presses send. Users then report time and money saved after each task is completed. For example, a worker may want to understand which states in the US have similar drug substitution laws. This request would be routed to an analyst who would first locate, then download the individual state drug substitution law from each of the 50 states websites. The analyst would then review each law and group them by similar characteristic. The resulting deliverable could then be turned into a presentation or even a database for delivery back to the requester.

Possibly the biggest impact is the ease in which an employee can summon support and the increased motivation that results in getting back to doing what is interesting and impactful work.

In terms of taking something away, there are many management processes in large firms that are ripe for simplification. For example, a few years ago the top executive team at UBS Wealth Management realised that the biggest constraint on their future growth was their cumbersome and conservative budgeting process. By eliminating this top-down process, and pushing accountability for target-setting down to the individual heads of trading around the world, they enabled the business to grow more effectively, and they got their knowledge workers — their client advisors — to take more responsibility than they had before. At a more micro-level, we saw a team at pharmaceutical company Roche recently experiment with a much simpler expense-claim processing system based around peer review rather than oversight, and again it was a useful way of getting rid of tedious and non-value-added activities.

3. Lead by example. A third approach is to follow Gandhi's dictum: be the change you wish to see in the world. Leading by example is about getting people to take responsibility for their own effectiveness. By pushing for significant changes in the balance of responsibility between your knowledge workers and the people who are nominally above them in the corporate hierarchy, you can help the knowledge workers to become more effective in their work.

Consider the case of Ross Smith, Director of testing for Microsoft Lync — the video conferencing and instant messaging service formerly known as Microsoft Office Communicator. Since taking the job four years ago, he has sought ways of giving greater responsibility to his 80-person division of software engineers. Last year, when Microsoft Lync 2010 was released, he was asked to reorganise his division so that the testing of the next generation product could begin. Rather than decide everything himself, he decide to let the reorg happen in a bottom-up way. He explained that individual contributors would select which of four teams they would like to be in. These 80 or so people became free agents looking for the position that was best for them. The team leaders could not offer more money, but they could offer employees opportunities to develop their careers, new technologies to work on, and new colleagues to work with.

The reorg — quickly dubbed a ‘WeOrg’ — took longer than anticipated, as people really wanted to do the research to find the right fit and to interview their prospective bosses. There was some scepticism about whether it would work, but Smith had already built a sufficiently strong culture of trust for his people to give him the benefit of the doubt. He was also able to promise there would be no staff cuts because of the changes. The outcome was that 95 per cent of the team ‘liked’ or ‘somewhat liked’ the new method. But more broadly, the result was that Smith's 80-person team felt a much greater responsibility than usual for structuring their work in a way that was most effective for them and their colleagues.

While these three approaches are very different, all are forceful ways of pushing people out of their comfort zones to find more efficient ways of working. And who doesn't want more hours in the day?

 

Jordan Cohen is a knowledge worker productivity expert at PA Consulting Group

He is the recipient of the 2010 Grand Prize at the Management Innovation eXchange (The MIX) for his previous work as creator and head of PfizerWorks at Pfizer Inc.

Julian Birkinshaw is a professor at the London Business School

You can view the article online here.

 


For more on PA's thinking on knowledge worker productivity, click here or contact us now.

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