How productive is the knowledge worker?

So here is the million dollar question that everyone asks – how productive is the knowledge worker?

I think the question is way over priced. In some ways, it is misleading; in others its disastrous.

Lets take a quick history tour.


19th and early 20th century were defined by blue-collar workers. It was the era of manufacturing. Factories were the job hubs. They were the pivots of an economy. It was the ‘Industrial age’. While there sure were knowledge workers (after all someone did design those factories!), their numbers and perceived contribution to the economy were far less than that of their blue-collar brothers.

The blue-collar workers were the center of attention. How they did, how much they ‘produced’ and how well they were ‘utilized’ were the important questions.

And hence, they were the focus of all  improvements and optimizations.

In came Taylorism – the movement to maximize the performance of the worker. It focused on a factory worker, and all that can be done to get maximum output from him. This included removing all inefficiencies, separating job functions, standardizing and optimizing every small action, separating the execution from planning and including scientific measures and processes to improve performance.

Practically, the factor worker was treated as a machine and subjected to same principles and processes for better ‘utilization’ and ‘productivity’ that a machine is treated to.

How much the factory worker was utilized to produce maximum output was the centerpiece of Taylorism.

Make no mistake – there was nothing sinister in Taylorism. It wasn’t a movement of slavery. The very motive was economic. It made sense in the world of manufacturing. All interventions have a context, where they make sense, and others where they don’t. It depends. Taylorism made sense for industrial age.

However, this model of utilization and measurement of productivity just does not make sense in the more complex, chaotic and relatively disorganized world of knowledge workers. Just like you cannot expect an artist to be 100% utilized from 9-5 to produce ‘5  paintings per day’, you cannot expect to enforce utilization on a knowledge worker and except a fixed daily output. If you can, then that knowledge worker is really at the lowest chain of the intellectual work (e.g. the transaction based knowledge workers like call center representatives).

A knowledge worker takes his means of production – his brain – everywhere with him. That is where he works. There is little visibility into what goes on there. There is a visible labor, and there is an invisible labor. A factory worker’s labor is visible; that of a knowledge worker is invisible. What happens in the mind is certainly more chaotic than what happens on an assembly line. Applying the same model for a researcher in a technology lab and a foreman on an assembly line is ridiculous.

Unfortunately, this ridiculous is very common. Knowledge organizations tend to enforce the utilization principle on knowledge workers – forcing them directly or indirectly to be ‘utilized’ in their work to be ‘productive’. This is like applying the principles of one world on a completely different one. It is like driving a desert vehicle in the ocean.

Again, don’t get me wrong. I am not indicating a world where knowledge workers are left on their own daydreaming and wondering with no milestones and accountability. That world is best left for the spiritual zeals.

Knowledge workers work best when they have a very clear vision of where they want to go (note where, not how) and given some constraints (e.g. time, team and a snapshot of the company’s share price). Then they need to be left on their own to figure out the how. Any interactions, engagement or interventions should be to help and facilitate, rather than to enforce and dictate.

The key for knowledge workers is effectiveness, not utilization.

You need to make knowledge workers ‘effective’. Effective – the Drucker way. When they are effective, utilization and productivity will be byproducts. And that too very productive byproducts.

Image: Wikipedia


6 thoughts on “How productive is the knowledge worker?

  1. Fantastic analysis Ather and all these productiveness stuff comes from the manufacturing world. You might have seen some attempts to gauge performance in software development through LOC (lines of code) and DRE (Defect Removal Efficiency). None of them work.

    Though I plan to write a post on this topic some day, but all the attempts to apply concepts from the Manufacturing world into Software world have failed because they are so different in nature. For example, ISO 9000 works very well in (standard) Engineering world where ‘say what you do and do what you say’ produces the same quality products all the time. Where as when we apply ISO 9000 principles to the Software Engineering world, changing requirements and customization for each client makes it irrelevant in most cases.

    I applaud your efforts in making people understand that we need to deal Knowledge Workers different than the Factory Workers 🙂

  2. Great one there Ather! The artist’s analogy was very nice. I am currently facing exactly the same challenges – easiest example from my side is the 9-5 imposed at Universities.

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