“Managers still try to measure a knowledge worker’s output like their counterparts measured the shoveling of coal 100 years ago,” CIMS research associate Stephen K. Markham wrote in our Winter 2007-08 issue. Markham went on to explain the difficulties of managing people who do work that requires a long time but with no immediate outcome. He outlined six actions managers would need to learn:
• How to measure performance during the period that knowledge workers are not producing units of demonstrable outputs.
• How to maintain equity with other employees during this period.
• How to measure long-term opportunity of the knowledge worker outputs.
• How to manage risk of long-term opportunities.
• How to reward knowledge work.
• How to maintain equity with other employees when knowledge workers are rewarded.
Since then, Markham and his colleagues at NC State College of Management have developed two tools that managers can use for this purpose. Their research was sponsored by the Innovation Board of international oil giant BP, which sought to learn how to help its own knowledge workers be more productive. The first tool is designed to help supervisors measure knowledge worker productivity. The second tool is a checklist to help them formulate specific actions to take with knowledge workers. You’ll find both tools elsewhere on the CIMS website, http://cims.ncsu.edu, and explained briefly below.
Knowledge Worker Productivity Measures
The first tool, Knowledge Worker Productivity Assessment, is divided into four short sets of questions, each to be answered on a scale of 1 (low) to 5 and given your own weighting.
Section 1, Project Description, helps to clarify the nature of the knowledge work being conducted, such as the expected value, when that value might be realized, and who helps to create the value.
Section 2, Standard Delivery Measures, lets you assess project performance at the time of delivery. These are typical measures of cost, schedule, quality, and client satisfaction.
Section 3, Pre-delivery Measures, assesses the performance of projects in progress. This is critical to managing projects whose outcomes may be some time away. Questions the research has shown to reveal pre-delivery performance include: the existence of a specific and comprehensive project plan, clearly stated outcomes, resources identified, milestones scheduled, use of peer reviews, external reviewers, etc. It is important to recognize that pre-delivery metrics can be established and used for complex projects.
Section 4, Post-delivery Measures, lets you track outcomes. This is important because the organization may not feel the results from its knowledge workers for some time. Every knowledge worker should maintain a portfolio of work. These questions assess how well the project performed according to user acceptance and the perception of peers. Questions evaluate: client satisfaction, project impact, level of usage, strengthening of client relationship, tangible and intangible results, and more. Markham stresses that an important feature of the Knowledge Worker Productivity Assessment tool is that it incorporates both an importance rating and ratings by multiple people. The importance rating helps the knowledge worker and manager focus on the critical parts of the project by setting priorities for each facet of productivity. In addition, each productivity item may be rated by multiple people. Suggested raters include the knowledge workers, their supervisor, peers, or outside experts. These may or may not be used for each project review. Finally, the importance-weighted ratings for each question and each rater can be graphed so that managers quickly spot problem areas or differences in opinions about project performance.
Knowledge Worker Management Check List
The second tool again draws upon the research and identifies seven managerial factors necessary to lead knowledge workers successfully. The information obtained can help to increase worker productivity and to evaluate the culture of the teams in which they work.
1. Managers need to ensure knowledge workers are networked with the necessary people, including other content experts, potential customers, production personnel, and other stakeholders.
2. Managers need to ensure knowledge workers are not overloaded. This is perhaps the greatest challenge in this era of more work with fewer resources, Markham observes, yet if knowledge workers are not permitted the time necessary to do good analyses and make good decisions, catastrophic results could be born by the company later. This factor includes not only the individual’s work but also the ability to review other people’s work conducted on behalf of the company by contractors.
3. Managers must recognize the value of the work being done by the knowledge worker. This can be a frustrating part of their work, especially if the manager does not share their area of expertise. Common language and peer evaluations are critical. And knowledge workers need to understand the commercial objectives of the organization so they can calibrate and target their work for its benefit.
4. The fourth factor is an accountability paradox. Knowledge workers need to be held accountable for their work and level of productivity but also be allowed the flexibility to do what they consider important. This paradox is resolved in an ongoing dialogue of importance and contribution and cannot be resolved in a single conversation, Markham cautions.
5. Productivity for knowledge workers is measured differently than for manual workers. Rather than productivity being a continuous outcome of work, knowledge workers often make discrete decisions that may take months with no physical outcomes. Managers must establish delivery, pre-delivery, and post-delivery metrics. Productivity measurements should take peers and customers into account.
6. Ensuring a complete but not overly burdensome process is the sixth factor. Managers must eliminate non-value adding control points and reports, and documentation requirements should be negotiated rather than imposed. Early-stage ideation and innovation stages should be used so that projects are vetted before being developed, and managers must be certain that the people they assign possess the needed skills. Include knowledge workers in decisions that affect them and their work.
7. Managers must recognize than even though knowledge workers are employees, high performance is a voluntary gift to the company, one that knowledge workers are anxious to give but that they are likely to withdraw if treated poorly. They need to know the business reasons for decisions being made and let groups self-assign people to tasks to the extent practical. “In my Winter 2007-08 TMR report, “Markham concludes, “I noted that knowledge workers are the people who create the products and services you need to drive growth. These tools will help repay you for the considerable effort you put into keeping them creative and productive.”