Knowledge Management guru Tom Davenport (author of Working Knowledge)has a post over on his blog describing a conversation with a journalist who asked: “Was Drucker wrong?” when he stated that ‘making knowledge work productive is the greatest economic challenge of this century’”. The comment has led to a discussion about why companies don’t do more to improve knowledge worker productivity. Tom gives 3 reasons:

  1. It’s hard.
  2. It takes a fair amount of up-front investment.
  3. Knowledge workers, like Greta Garbo, like to be left alone.

    And questions if these 3 are sufficient. I could talk about this all day, it’s a pet frustration. But, for starters, I’d disagree with the 3 reasons.

    1. It’s hard

    Plenty of systems are hard, but that doesn’t stop organisations from adopting them – take regulatory compliance for example. The challenge is proving why something needs to be done in the first place. Knowledge work could lead a company to unforeseen success… or it might not. It is difficult, if not impossible, to clearly describe and predict the results from investing in knowledge work. It is very easy to decribe and predict the cost of failing compliance regulations.

    2. It takes a fair amount of up-front investment

    Knowledge systems don’t have to require significant up-front investment. The most successful collaboration systems typically start very small, with little or no investment, and spread organically before the IT department has finished reading the analysts’ recommendations about what to do. Building a production line requires a lot more up-front investment and still gets done. Why? You can define the need and predict the output from the production line…

    3. Knowledge workers, like Greta Garbo, like to be left alone.

    I guess it depends on your definition of knowledge workers, but most humans are quite social and like being with others. These days groups are just as likely as individuals to create valuable knowledge.

    Is there a universal reason?

    I think most reasons come back to the same core issues: many organisations still operate a command-and-control hierarchy and projects receive investment based on their predicted ability to satisfy a need and deliver quantifiable results.

    A command-and-control hierarchy rarely delegates sufficient responsibility to enable knowledge work to occur easily and naturally – the management team does not place enough trust in its employees’ abilities to help change and improve the organisation. (And the popular ‘management/rewards by objectives’ HR systems further discourage knowledge work – see ‘Crashing with the nose up‘.)

    Despite all the predictions that we are entering an era of creativity and knowledge, most CxOs are firmly in the era of information (if not still in the industrial age). “Show me the money” echoes down too many hallways and defines the priorities for investment, putting the emphasis on short-term gains and projects that will deliver predictable financial benefits. Knowledge work fits neither of these categories – it is a long-term endeavour and there are no guarantees of success. CxOs will look enviously at competitors who tap into ‘next big thing’ but it still won’t convince them to invest in high-risk knowledge work… not yet.

    I believe the trend that will ultimately bring most companies round to investing in knowledge work will be the final breakdown of traditional organisation hierarchies and boundaries. This will only happen when incumbents lose out to new entrants in their market who, to put it simply, understand that knowledge work just defines what they do. The likely key to this trend is ‘Generation Tech’. The generation starting to enter the workplace now has grown up with the Internet and is used to getting answers, instantly. They will challenge authority far more than any previous generation (en masse as opposed to quirky individuals). If the organisation won’t change and listen to them, they will leave and start their own companies (enter the new entrants…). Future generations will follow their lead. Organisations that don’t accept and adapt to new ways of working will not survive in the long run. The reason we aren’t seeing more examples already is that it is too soon and people rarely change until they are forced to.

    Was Peter Drucker wrong? No. He was just waaaaay ahead of his time (picked the wrong century).

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    Update: Here’s the original comment I posted on the blog, i.e. the short version of this post 🙂

    There are plenty of reasons, but most fall back to the same core issues: most companies still operate a command-and-control structure that discourages knowledge work, and projects are still prioritised based on need and risk. Issues like compliance regulation have a predicted need and value. Knowledge work is unpredictable and the need is rarely understood until after it has been created and used.

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