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Knowledge Work

Maximize knowledge work productivity

Most companies give "role" (or job) work design only casual consideration. The exception might be manual work—the standardized task or doing part of work—which is frequently the focus of process-improvement engineers and IT professionals. However, it is knowledge work—the adaptive response or deciding part of work—that creates most of a company's economic value, and knowledge work is rarely designed.

The predominent reason for this is the assumption that the performance of knowledge work is due solely to the innate effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) of individual workers. In fact, the relevant research very clearly demonstrates that most knowledge workers, despite potentially high levels of discretion overall, control less than 20% of the specific factors that determine their individual performance.

Most factors that determine knowledge worker performance are determined by their role and its underlying work system. Furthermore, a role that is carefully designed is substantially more productive than a role that is only casually conceived.

The closest thing to work design in most companies is a casual matter of pulling-together a job description comprised of lists of duties, responsibilities, objectives, and employee requirements — a task often completed by someone barely familiar with the work and having limited expertise in work design. It is just assumed that the many unexamined internal forces impacting this work are either naturally supportive, or if not supportive are worthy of whatever obstruction to performance they create.

Consider the potential of role (or job) work design

For many years, this approach has been good enough. The unnecessary costs and wasted economic opportunity are rarely assessed:

  • wasted organizational costs associated with remarkably low levels of workforce engagement, loss of top talent, and challenges to recruit the best and brightest
  • wasted management time spent working around avoidable workforce challenges
  • wasted worker potential resulting from unintented yet unrecognized or tolerated work system dysfunction
  • wasted market opportunities to please customers, realize additional economic value, and create competitive advantage

We now have a solution, which is to extend work design beyond the process level to individual roles (or jobs). This is especially productive for high population frontline roles with the potential to create additional economic value (e.g., sales, customer/client services, field services, technical and professional services). Times the 10, 100, 1,000, or 10,000 workers in the role, the potential of even a 5% or 10% increase in productivity can be substantial, while 20% to 40% is more typical.

Are workforce problems simply work-design failures?

Amazed by wildly successful "at-bats" redesigning the work in people-dependent operations, several clients have wondered if the plan-execution and related workforce challenges resolved were in fact nothing more than dysfunctions created by ineffective work design. They noted that as the causal forces were replaced with alternatives more aligned with both the work objectives and human nature, the problems mostly disappeared.

They conjectured whether more effort to create an effective work design at the time a role or job is created would maximize performance potential while minimizing requirements for day-to-day managing. In other words, they were reconceiving workforce problems as work-design failures. Moreover, they questioned why managers typically respond to such problems by focusing on the workers involved, rather than by making improvements to the work design that shapes worker performance?

DesignedWORK is now working with companies to test this thinking. If you want to consider the potential to manage with work design in your company, please contact DesignedWORK for additional information.

NEXT: Managing With Design

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