Enabling continuous improvement in knowledge worker productivity

An informal survey…

Ashurst, Colin It certainly doesn’t count as ‘research’, but for a number of years I’ve asked as many IT managers as I can how their organisations help knowledge workers understand how to exploit Microsoft Office and other tools to improve their productivity. My ‘sample’ has included all sorts of organisations including some large global organisations. There are typically two parts to the answer:

· “We have a help desk that they can contact if there is a problem. The helpdesk also uses the intranet to provide some self help and learning material.”

· “We also provide a range of classroom based courses on key applications.”

This is ok as a start but doesn’t go nearly far enough to really enable productivity.

The help desk is really there to resolve problems – also long as the PC is secure, and working their job is done. Normally, the helpdesk staff will not be experts in using the Office applications and may have limited experience of some of the activities people are using them for. In practice we ‘don’t know what we don’t know’ and don’t ask for help. We have probably also learnt not to bother based on past experience – that’s not to do with the quality and helpfulness of the help desk, it just the service hasn’t been designed to address our challenge of improving knowledge worker productivity.

Also most staff, and certainly most senior managers and knowledge workers, don’t attend courses on Word (or any other software applications) so we are left with the original problem that most of us are not using important aspects of functionality that could make a real difference to our productivity.

Designing education and support to improve productivity.

We need to design education and support services to improve the productivity of knowledge workers. A key starting point is that we need to do more than virtually all organisations do today and also we need to approach the problem in a different way. Starting assumptions must be that formal, classroom based courses are only a small part of the answer and that we need to tackle the huge issue of ‘we don’t know what we don’t know’ which means that we do not know that there is a better way and that we should ask for help.

The organisational climate or culture is important. I’ve already explored issues related to senior management and will consider operational management later on. These roles are key in getting the climate right – for example setting an expectation that there is always a better way and as Drucker suggests: continuous innovation has to be part of the work and the responsibility of knowledge workers.

A further key assumption that informs our design is that there is a need for an ongoing process of learning. This is not about a one-off activity. There may be some bursts of energy around releases of new and upgraded products but this is essentially an ongoing process. These are ‘intellectual’ technologies that have properties that are not fixed on implementation but can be innovated endlessly, depending on the interaction with the intellect of the human beings who implement and use them. As we learn more we start to see new possibilities and become equipped for a further cycle of learning.

We also need to recognise that much of what we learn in the workplace comes from colleagues through our network of day to day contacts.

There is a counter-argument that these technologies are now too powerful and that innovation has overshot our needs and ability to use them. My considered response to this is “rubbish!” We can expand on that another time if anyone wants to. The problem is actually that organisations have been slow to learn how to seize the opportunities – the potential benefits for those that find a way are significant. Don’t forget we are not just talking about productivity improvements of a few %. Well researched studies of the productivity of IS development teams (a special case of knowledge work) suggest there is a difference of 10:1 (yes 10 x) between the best and the worst. We expect to find large differences in productivity in other scenarios too.

Outlining a new design

So if we redesign education and support services based on these assumptions, or principles and the overall objective of improving knowledge worker productivity where do we end up?

Before I outline some thoughts on the answer I want to emphasise two things. Firstly that there is no single right answer and secondly that there are potentially significant implications for both the IT function and for business units.

I’ve run out of space for this week. So perhaps it leaves some time for you to think – “what would you do differently in your organisation?” I’ll outline my suggestions next week.

Colin Ashurst  durham

Senior Teaching Fellow: Information Systems and Business Transformation

Chief Information Officer

Durham Business School, University of Durham

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