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


Take a Thinking Day

“Airplane Days – A couple of years ago I noticed that I got some of my best work done on long intercontinental flights. No Internet access, no distractions, just churning through high priority to-do items. I would finish the flights not only at Inbox 0 but also having completed some “creative” tasks that had long lingered on my list due to lack of contiguous time to complete them: drafting new presentations/documents or deep quantitative analysis of some data/spreadsheet, for example.

When I made the joke that I should start flying internationally more often for productivity reasons, the light bulb went off. Now, at the beginning of each week, I carefully look at my schedule and declare one day (or two half days) to be Airplane Time. I block it out on my shared calendar and treat it as if I were in the air: working out of the office, disabling my phone, and shutting off network connections on my laptop. The rest of the days are for meetings, etc. but this blocked out time each week is my most productive by far.”  – Quora


Sometime back, I wrote about the Long Walks. The key idea was that you need to have contiguous, uninterrupted blocks of time where you focus on a single project or task to be most productive. Having ‘long enough’ time for an activity helps you coalesce all the different data pieces hanging around your head and outside and bring out aspects and issues that simply is not possible if you are in a short-burst mode. That is why I called it the Long Walk model.

This is exactly what is being quoted above as an excellent tool to achieve the same goal.

John Donahoe, CEO eBay, takes what he calls a ‘Thinking Day’ every six months to ‘beat the chaos’. John wrote:

“I have found that one of the simplest tools for learning and enhancing my performance is to regularly reflect on how to spend my time. Every six months I go through a process where I step back, contemplate what I have learned over the previous six months, and then adjust my focus to ensure I am spending my time and energy in ways where I can create the greatest impact.”

It is essentially a process of zooming out from the current reality, rising above the daily fires and chaos and reflect on what is happening. It is like a military commander climbing the most strategic height of a battlefield to see what is happening. The visibility, perspective and insight that he will get from that vantage point is invaluable. We all need to such visibility and insights.

“I just finished one of my thinking days last month. I filled a white board with my assessment of the external market and how we were doing against our priorities for the first six months of this year. As frequently happens, once I had written everything out in one place, I found it useful to step back and look at things from a holistic perspective. I emerged with new insights and with greater clarity about what’s most important. To remind myself of these insights, I wrote them out, as I always do, into my personal priorities file and now carry this file with me everywhere I go.”

This is one of the best productivity and effectiveness tools. It helps dodge off the daily fires we have to fight. It makes you think deep and long enough to get the best use of your time. As Drucker said that an executive has just about 25% of his time in his control.

Taking a regular thinking day out is the best use of that time!

Feedback – the Candy Crush Way!

If you have lately been unproductive, there is a good chance that you are addicted to Candy Crush.

Well if it’s any consolation, you are joined by millions of others around the world. If you need more consolation, the addiction was recently a multi-page article in TIME magazine.

For those of you who are living in caves, Candy Crush Saga is an online game available on mobile and web platforms. It has various ‘levels’, each level cleared by busting three or more same colored candies present adjacent to each other on a grid. Your mission is to complete the level by busting candies to meet a particular target in a finite number of moves.

CandyCrush copy

Seems simple – so why the addiction?

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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:

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Know Thy Time

“Time is what we want most,but what we use worst.” 
         ― William Penn

Earlier, I wrote about the importance of measurement and data that represents reality. The main idea was that any improvement, personally or professionally, can only be effective if it is based on fact based measurements. In God we trust; all others bring data.

ImageThe article used the Global Slavery Index report as an example for defining the process of measurement.

That’s useful – but how about a measurement example that can be applied personally and has value? How if we measure where our time goes.

Our daily discourse is filled with clichés about time:

  • Time is money
  • Time is our greatest asset
  • Time is a great leveler

Yet, we abuse this great asset with impunity. We become unproductive at the very core asset that makes us productive and effective.

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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.

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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.

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