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December 26, 2005

Was Drucker Wrong?

OK, I will confess that this entire posting was originally motivated by self-interest: I checked the Amazon sales rank for my book Thinking for a Living, and found that it had fallen over the past few days from the respectable levels it occupied for the first couple of months it was out. Most authors, of course, are semi-obsessed by their Amazon rankings; I get less so with each book I write.

But the apparent fact that my tome is not going to compete with Who Moved My Cheese at the top of the best-seller lists made me wonder just how important it really is to make knowledge workers more productive and effective.

I also had a chat a few days ago with a Wall Street Journal reporter who is researching an article on knowledge worker productivity. He asked me if the subject is important. I said yes, and mouthed the old Peter Drucker chestnut that “making knowledge work productive is the greatest economic challenge of this century.” He asked, “Well, was Drucker wrong?”

Mon dieu! How could he possibly ask such a question, particularly since the great man only passed a few weeks ago?

In order to quickly deflect such a heresy, I spewed out a few more clichés, such as “Knowledge workers are the key to growth and innovation in their organizations,” and “Unless our knowledge workers are the most productive and effective on earth, their jobs will flow to the parts of the world where they do it better.”

Then he asked the killer question. “Are companies doing anything about this?” Again, I spouted the names of a few companies that have actually attempted to make life better for their knowledge workers: Intel, Capital One, Novartis, Cisco…OK, it’s a pretty short list. If improving knowledge worker productivity is so important, why aren’t more companies doing something about it?

There are some good reasons, i.e.:
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.

But these seem insufficient as rationales for doing little or nothing to make knowledge workers more successful at work (other than providing them with their very own legal copy of Microsoft Office, a PC, and a telephone with voice mail). I am frankly puzzled why more of this isn’t happening. If you know the answer, you will be giving me (and the world) a great holiday present if you feel generous enough to share it.

Posted by Tom Davenport on December 26, 2005 05:16 PM | Permalink

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Perhaps the corporate, command & control, organisational model is just not suited to real knowledge work. Knowledge workers will prosper when a new organisational model (the networked, small pieces loosely joined org) becomes the norm. Round hole, square pegs.

Posted by: Harold Jarche | March 22, 2006 09:28 AM

As I tried to analyze in my article "Strategy and the Fat Smoker" (www.davidmaister.com) it is a human reality of businesses as well as individuals that just because something is smart, good for us and self-evident doesn't mean we're going to do it. We know what to do, why we should and even precisely how, but we only do things if there is either an immediate crisis or, and this is the eternal dream, someone in the organization can create a glamerous enough dream with enough *resolve* to get us to do obvious things.

Which, by the way, calls into question the contribution of af all authors, consultants and managers - what's needed is NOT new ideas, but the ability to create the determination to act on existing knowledge and understanding.

Ina market economy, what gets rewarded is not inherent value but scarcity. Knowledge, I would argue, is not scarce. The willingness to get on the diet and the ability to create in others the drive to do the same are what is truly rare. (And by the way, Drucker said that, too!)

Posted by: David Maister | January 31, 2006 10:34 PM

Christensen is fairly clear on this. The organization's culture trumps the outside MBA education that a manager gets and then tries to implement upon returning to the firm. That is why Christensen thinks that internal management training is better since the institution may internalize this "training" or "learning" as part of its culture. Drucker admitted himself that measurement of the knowledge worker was impossible just as he also commented that quantification of learning was impossible. The spate of "standards-driven" educational initiatives with no results is illustrative of that. Most of what MBA's and PHd educator's propose through their theoretical studies is ignored in the real world for several reasons. Fear of new knowledge (Deming), the "not invented here" dilemma that many managers fall victim too by finding very profound theories not applicable because they did not think of it first. Even in small businesses you see this--an unwillingness to study anything (the failure of our education system with its reward and punishment architecture)and the assumption that all new important ideas will be learned through experience eventually. It never does though because they aren't paying attention to theories that might predict future processes (Deming and Christensen).

Posted by: Steven M. Russi | January 19, 2006 07:35 PM

A coincidence. I've been ranting on these lines as well. Courtesy - An article on the 21st Century Organization in the McKinsey Quarterly. I don't have the solution(s), but I have been thinking aloud about what might 'work'... :)


PS: Many more such rantings on the lack of adoption of KM in organizations are there for the taking... ;)

Posted by: Nirmala | January 9, 2006 05:41 AM

Hi Tom:

As you know, this is a question that I’m actively trying to answer. I’m a little convinced (not a lot…) that part of the reason is there’s not enough empirical evidence about how knowledge worker productivity interventions contribute to bottom line performance. Anecdotal evidence is easy to dismiss. (“My situation is different”). Without a body of evidence that can tie these interventions to specific percentage increases in revenue and profit, most executives in most big companies simply don’t have the foresight to imagine the gains that await them. Oh, and “waiting” is a problem too. The time and space between the types of interventions we’ve discussed before and many that you allude to in "Thinking" and the benefits thereof is generally longer than one quarter! If we (educators, consultants, etc.) could begin to develop a repository of knowledge worker interventions and the resultant performance improvements, I think that would go a long way to moving the issue.

I’ve expanded on this subject at my blog: http://jlclld.blogspot.com/

Posted by: Jeff Cherry | January 1, 2006 04:22 PM

Supplementing the list...

1. Businesses are shortsighted. They are the lumberjack who is too busy chopping down trees to stop and sharpen his ax. It takes longer than one quarter to receive the payback for becoming a better learner.

2. Decision makers assume that a knowledge worker’s ability is a given. Schooling reinforces the perception that some people are gifted, some are slow, and that’s just the way it is. If you can't fix it, don't bother.

3. Intangible changes are tougher than mechanical ones because resistance is an unseen enemy.

Posted by: Jay Cross | December 27, 2005 07:36 PM

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. I've posted a more detailed comment on my blog

Posted by: Joining Dots | December 27, 2005 02:52 PM

Hi Tom,

Nice to see you blogging.

My wife is a doctor - my Mum is very proud, btw. During her training she and her colleagues were forced to work horendous hours to the point that they were virtually walking brain dead. I imagine that this is still common behaviour in medical training throughout the world, even though patients must surely die.

I can see (at least) two reasons why this foolishness persists:

1) it seems to save money (but not lives) having junior staff working extremely long hours. Managers only get measured on costs - unless the number of deaths is way above the norm.
2) the doctors who are now managing the system reason that it was good enough for them and that their hard-graft made them into better doctors. So, they reason, if it was good enough for them in the past (and they are living proof that the system delivers excellent doctors) then the system is surely good enough for the young doctors of today.

I suspect that both of these reasons apply to Knowledge workers too. The knowledge worker's bosses only have control of the cost side of initiatives, not the benefit side, so they try to keep costs down. They also think that it was good enough in the past for them when they worked at the coal-face so why spoil their staff when they probably don't need it.

Clarke Ching

Posted by: Clarke Ching | December 27, 2005 06:46 AM

Lawyers are a great example of knowledge workers. I've worked on knowledge management and practice productivity in the legal market for 15+ years. Changing how large law firm lawyers work is very difficult. Billable hours are not as big a barrier as one might think - lawyers in large corporate law departments are no better at improving how they practice.

The successes in improving lawyer productivity have come from (1) recent institutional automation efforts; (2) "baking" improvements into existing processes (e.g., collecting more data when new matters open, from which inferences can be drawn by automated systems; and (3) individual practice group initiatives where a strong leader imposes practice changes.

Centrally imposed "improvements" in US law firms have largely failed. Unless an "improvement" answers well "what's in it for me," it's not likely to succeed. Your Babson colleague Eric Mankin recently offered insight into why more does not happen. In "Forced to Change, Eric noted that even when individuals face serious health threats, the chances are 9 to 1 against the person changing dangerous behaviors. Given that, why should we expect knowledge workers to change how they work merely because someone provides a new tool or process.

Posted by: Ron Friedmann | December 26, 2005 11:28 PM

As I posted on my blog

There are a lot of areas where organizations have not listened to Drucker (via Blogspotting) and that doesn't mean that the ideas are not great. It is just that Drucker showed the "aspired reality" for organizations.

Organizations on the other hand focus on the day to day operations, and listen more to the quarterly diktats of Wall Street and shreholders than focussing on the aspirations that leaders like Drucker showed.

Actual reality wins most of the time over aspired reality. Specially when the rewards of the actual reality are clearer than the transition and pain to change into the aspired reality.

Posted by: Gautam | December 26, 2005 11:14 PM

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