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Article|McKinsey Quarterly

Boosting the productivity of knowledge workers

The key is identifying and addressing the barriers workers face in their daily interactions.

September 2010 | byEric Matson and Laurence Prusak

Are you doing all that you can to enhance the productivity of your knowledge workers? It’s a simple question, but one that few senior executives can answer.

Their confusion isn’t for lack of trying. 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.1 The stakes are high: raising the productivity of these workers, who constitute a large and growing share of the workforce in developed economies, represents a major opportunity for companies, as well as for countries with low birthrates that hope to maintain GDP growth.

Nonetheless, many executives have a hazy understanding of what it takes to bolster productivity for knowledge workers. This lack of clarity is partly because knowledge work involves more diverse and amorphous tasks than do production or clerical positions, where the relatively clear-cut, predictable activities make jobs easier to automate or streamline. Likewise, performance metrics are hard to come by in knowledge work, making it challenging to manage improvement efforts (which often lack a clear owner in the first place). Against this backdrop, it’s perhaps unsurprising that many companies settle for scattershot investments in training and IT systems.

Since knowledge workers spend half their time on interactions, our research and experience suggest that companies should first explore the productivity barriers that impede these interactions. Armed with a better understanding of the constraints, senior executives can get more bang for their buck by identifying targeted productivity-improvement efforts to increase both the efficiency and effectiveness of the interactions between workers.

Among companies we’ve surveyed (see sidebar, “About the research”), fully half of all interactions are constrained by one of five barriers: physical, technical, social or cultural, contextual, and temporal. While individual companies will encounter some obstacles more than others, our experience suggests that the approaches to overcoming them are widely applicable.

Physical and technical barriers

Physical barriers (including geographic distance and differences in time zones) often go hand in hand with technical barriers because the lack of effective tools for locating the right people and collaborating becomes even more pronounced when they are far away. While these barriers are on the wane at many companies given the arsenal of software tools available, some large, globally dispersed organizations continue to suffer from them.

One remedy implemented by some organizations is to create “communities of practice” for people who could benefit from one another’s advice—as the World Bank has done to help the 100 or so of its planners who focus on urban poverty to facilitate discussions on projects to upgrade slums. The communities feature online tools to help geographically dispersed members search for basic information (say, member roles and the specific challenges they are addressing) and sometimes use the latest social-networking tools to provide more sophisticated information, including whom the members have worked or trained with. By supplementing electronic tools with videoconferences and occasional in-person meetings, communities can bridge physical distances and build relationships.

Social or cultural barriers

Examples of social or cultural barriers include rigid hierarchy or ineffective incentives that don’t spur the right people to engage. To avoid such problems, Petrobras, the Brazil-based oil major, created a series of case studies focused on real events in the company’s past that illuminate its values, processes, and norms. The cases are discussed with new hires in small groups—promoting a better understanding of how the organization works and encouraging a culture of knowledge sharing and collaborative problem solving. (To benefit further from such approaches, companies should include knowledge sharing in performance reviews and ensure that team leaders clearly communicate acceptable response times for information requests. The communities of practice described above can help too: employees are far more likely to give timely and useful responses to people in their network.)

Contextual barriers

Employees who face contextual barriers struggle to share and translate knowledge obtained from colleagues in different fields. Complex interactions often require contact with people in other departments or divisions, making it hard for workers to assess a colleague’s level of expertise or apply the advice they may receive. Think of the disconnect that often occurs between a company’s sales department and its product-development team over customer data. The two groups frequently struggle to communicate because they think and talk so differently about the subject (sales staff devote attention to customer insights while developers focus on product specifications).

To overcome contextual barriers, organizations can rotate employees across teams and divisions or create forums where specialists in different areas can learn about one another’s work. The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), for instance, holds a biannual “Masters Forum” to share knowledge across disciplines. About 50 employees from different parts of the agency attend the meetings to hear other NASA colleagues talk about the tools, methods, and skills they use in extremely complex projects. The sessions are lightly moderated and very interactive.

Similarly, managers at Ecopetrol, a Colombian gas and oil company, have found that technical forums not only break down the natural barriers between occupations but also facilitate knowledge sharing across geographic boundaries. Moreover, the forums build trust, which encourages employees to share information more freely.

The barrier of time

The final barrier is time, or rather the perceived lack of it. If valuable interactions are falling victim to time constraints, executives can use job roles and responsibilities to help identify the employees that knowledge workers should be interacting with and on what topics. In some cases, companies may need to clarify decision rights and redefine roles to reduce the interaction burden on some employees while increasing it on others.

Boston-based Millennium Pharmaceuticals, which develops drugs for cancer treatment, did just that. When it found that researchers didn’t have time to share lessons from their experiments, it created a small group of scientists to act as “knowledge intermediaries.” Based on meetings with company scientists as well as presentations, these employees summarize findings and submit them to an internal database. They also act as brokers by sharing knowledge across groups. The company reckons that this practice, combined with other initiatives, has boosted success rates for the company’s research and reduced the time needed to make key decisions.

About the authors

Eric Matson is a consultant in McKinsey’s Boston office; Laurence Prusak is a visiting scholar at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business and a former senior adviser to McKinsey.

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