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


Happy Birthday Thinking Spirits!

So, finally it’s a year of blogging. Happy Birthday to all of you!

My first real post was It Depends. It shows I was confused from the start. I had to even write a It Depends – 2 the following week.

And interestingly, this post is the 50th on the blog – almost 1 post per week. Good, but can be better.

And though Change Sucks, but change is good – so you can see a new theme for the blog!

In the spirit of last two posts on value of measurements, I decide to do some measurements of my own for the blog. And since Appearance Matters, I put them into infographics.


I have managed to consolidate all writings into 5 core themes – Knowledge Work, Leadership, Communication, Productivity and Time Management. The 50 posts are distributed like:

Continue reading

In God we trust; all others bring data

“In God we trust; all others bring data.”
                              ― W. Edwards Deming     

Recently, the Walk Free Foundation released their inaugural annual report on global slavery – the Global Slavery Index. It is a detailed report defining what constitutes slavery, estimated number of slaves in the world, a ranking of countries based on estimated slaves, and detailed socio-economic analyses.

ImageWhat is relevant here is not the content of the report (which is not to say that it is unimportant), but the process and value of measurement and data. Peopleware, an all-time classic for knowledge workers, lays out a two-stage theory of measuring things:

1 – What cannot be measured, cannot be improved
2 – Any measurement is better than no measurement at all

Our decisions are generally based on heuristics, rules of thumb, hunches, gut feelings, personal experiences, cultural norms and our opinions about things. While all of these have their place, they more often than not are developed by circumstances and experiences, rather than data that represents reality. That is why most interventions, whether at policy, strategy or tactical level fail. That is one of the reasons Change Sucks.

Continue reading

What is Wrong in Talking about Tools?

Being an active GTD subscriber, I follow relevant discussions (e.g. the GTD LinkedIn group).

A significant percentage of these discussions and articles relate to tools around GTD. Or they relate to specific practices around a tool. How to use Evernote for GTD? How to organize your ticker files? What is the best online service for managing GTD workflow? What are the specific folders you create? Are you happy with a particular tool?


These are all useful discussions. I even gave out my toolkit for GTD.

But I also wrote about that using GTD is not about adopting a particular set of tools or practices. It is about a personal transformation. It requires a change of heart.

It is not that tools are not important. They are. They ensure that you really get the stuff done. But they come after you understand what you are really trying to do. They are means to the end, not the end themselves. Talking about tools before you understand the end-goal is like putting your first step on the third leg of the ladder. It’s putting the cart before the horse.

Continue reading

Work While You Sleep

Dave Ramsey is a very successful person. He is a writer, speaker and a radio show host. His books are best sellers. His radio show is heard on more than 500 stations in USA and Canada. He focuses on getting people out of debt and become wealthy. Dave is hugely popular. He is leader of his tribe (the Seth Godin version).

Dave is very eloquent and articulate too. He communicates exceptionally well. His listeners are usually in rapt attention. He completely adheres to the Communication is what the Listener does principle.


Dave does a lot of TV & radio shows and live events. But Dave also sells products. He sells books. He sells DVDs and financial tools. While the media appearances are what brands him, it is the products in his store that are interesting. In a recent interview, he said that his books are what make money for him even as he sleeps. The product (books) are out there. The sales system is set up. The brand is established. He does not have to do anything. When he gets up in the morning, the money is in his bank account.

Continue reading

The (in)sanity index or how to get things done

This is a guest post by Zaki Shaheen, a former colleague, a smart knowledge worker and now a manager of many of them!

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting the results to be suddenly different.”
– Albert Einstein

insanityProject management (or knowledge work in general) is one of the most brain-tolling exercises and it’s absolutely critical that a project manager keeps her composure. Not just in meetings, but in moving things forward and getting things done. To always have mind like water.

I have seen (read made) a lot of mess ups and delayed deliveries. Whenever I see young project managers make the same mistakes as I once did, I volunteer my two cents.

Yesterday I had a eureka moment to model what happens when a project fails (or is failing). One of the way to do that is to come up with a key performance indicator (KPI). I call this one the sanity indicator.

Continue reading

The Day Stockholm Moved to the Right Side

This is an image from Stockholm, Sweden on September 3, 1967. That was the day when Sweden changed from driving on the left side of the road to the right side.

Sweden1967_02_1500-700x412Naturally, there was chaos.

A few posts back, I wrote about change, and why it sucks. No matter how necessary or beneficial a change may be, it is natural human tendency to resist it. We hate the transition associated with change. Going from a current status quo to a new status quo is always accompanied by Chaos and then persistence to implement itChaos scares us – partly because it is uncomfortable; partly because we think of Chaos as the actual change and run back to the safety of our old status quo.

Continue reading