Value for Knowledge Workers

Demonstrable value goes a long way to supporting the deployment of new software tools.

For structured business processes, return on investment (r.o.i.) is comparatively easy to estimate. Where unstructured or semi-structured digital content items (e.g. documents, spreadsheets, faxes, etc.) enable a given structured process (e.g. accounts receivable) their contribution to the overall value created is also typically quantifiable.

Where the process itself is unstructured the measurement of value is much harder. Perhaps the largest class of unstructured processes in a company fall in the category of knowledge work. The difficulties organizations have in understanding knowledge work is highlighted in an article just published in the McKinsey Quarterly entitled: "Boosting the productivity of knowledge workers".

  • Aside: Unfortunately a subscription is required to read the full article – hopefully you have one.

The article starts with the proposition that few senior executives can answer the question: "Are you doing all that you can to enhance the productivity of your knowledge workers?" This is unfortunate because, "Organizations around the world struggle to crack the code for improving the effectiveness of managers, salespeople, scientists, and others whose jobs consist primarily of interactions—with other employees, customers, and suppliers—and complex decision making based on knowledge and judgment."

The authors, Eric Matson and Laurence Prusak, describe five common barriers that hinder knowledge workers in more than half of the interactions in surveyed companies:

  1. Physical
  2. Technical
  3. Social or Cultural
  4. Contextual, and
  5. Temporal

Physical barriers include geographic and time zone separation between workers, and are typically linked to Technical challenges – where workers lack the necessary tools to overcome the physical barriers that separate them. As the article notes, there are a many software tools available that can help – these would include the various collaborative and social media tools, as well as the more classic document management applications that are encompassed in the broadest definitions of Enterprise Content Management (ECM).

Of course the availability of software tools does not guarantee that users will use them effectively; indeed, Social (e.g. organizational restrictions, opposing incentives and motivations) and Contextual barriers (e.g. not knowing who to consult or to trust) play a large part in hindering adoption.

The fifth barrier is Temporal. Time, or rather the perceived lack of it, is also a critical factor. In my experience knowledge workers do not consider time spent using social media and collaborative tools as important as other activities. Under time pressure they will stop using these tools if they need to spend more time on other activities they perceive as "real work".

What struck me in reading the article is that while an increasing proportion of staff in companies are knowledge workers, it is clear that what knowledge work is and how to best enable it to drive productivity gains is not clear. Given that, it is hardly surprising that people struggle to define the value of those software tools best able to support knowledge management.

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