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Companies must treat knowledge workers as assets

"Companies that consider both the organisation’s success and the knowledge workers’ success when they design the organisation, will make better use of their people."



Jordan Cohen

Financial Times

6 October 2011


Q: What is knowledge work?

JC: Knowledge workers use information to guide decisions. Typical roles include lawyers, business strategists, engineers, scientists and sales executives. The digital age has catapulted the potential importance of knowledge workers to new heights.

Q: Why is it so important?

JC: In the last century, developed economies educated and employed workers for an industrial economy and those workers became more productive and helped the market grow. Today, we are tackling the same productivity challenge in a different arena. Developed and even emerging economies emphasise knowledge work over industrial skills and companies will need to find ways to increase productivity. Organisations that maximise the productivity of their knowledge workers will have the advantage.

Q: What are companies looking for?

JC: When a line manager hires a knowledge worker, they are looking to complement the team or department with a specific capability – for example, to add more analytics capabilities or bring in more market expertise. Their focus is on looking for colleagues with the skills to help achieve the company’s vision, and even evolve a new one.

Q: What is the biggest mistake companies make?

JC: While companies love to say “our people are our greatest asset”, the truth is that employees are often viewed as liabilities or costs. So building processes to support knowledge workers is often seen as another liability. This means creating the right environment for knowledge workers is not a priority, and not reflected in the design of the organisation. For example, many companies have policies to help them manage risk and protect company assets. However, a likely byproduct of these policies is that they create work and increase the burden on already over-taxed employees, reducing their productivity. So it is important to change that mindset and see knowledge workers as assets. This then changes what the company does to find, develop, grow and retain those workers.

Q: How can companies make better use of these expensive people?

JC: Companies that consider both the organisation’s success and the knowledge workers’ success when they design the organisation, will make better use of their people. Most companies focus on setting objectives for departments, divisions or teams. This process generally works pretty well. However, there is a side-effect in that the company that is optimised for departmental performance is not necessarily optimised for the knowledge worker’s performance. If the focus is on knowledge workers and the tools they need to be successful, then different objectives and solutions emerge. For example, Pfizer’s award-winning pfizerWorks programme helps professionals reduce the time, effort and cost of getting work done by allowing employees to choose which parts of their jobs they should outsource so they can free up time for more strategic activity.

Q: How can a knowledge worker make their mark?

Their immediate focus should be on finding ways to avoid spending time on activities that add little value. To begin with they can:
● look through the calendar for the next four weeks. Identify meetings that include more than six people and evaluate whether they need to attend or if they should just get the output. Often, larger meetings are used to impart information and attendance isn’t necessary;
● stop writing that PowerPoint presentation. If it is to present an idea or status to a colleague within a team or department, maybe a conversation will do.

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