The Fundamental Secret to Improving Knowledge Work

The best place to start improving knowledge work is at the end of the process: focus on ways to improve knowledge-work outputs.

The late Peter Drucker identified improving knowledge work as the force most likely to drive economic progress in the 21st century. Unfortunately, most of the machinery we've developed to improve industrial productivity (the driver of economic progress during the last century) is largely irrelevant and potentially misleading if deployed blindly. Fortunately, there is an effective strategy that can effectively control the risks of using that machinery incorrectly; focusing on the end results needed and working backwards from those results to the most effective steps needed to produce those results. The effort may not be easy or straightforward. On the other hand, focusing on deliverables (and the particular characteristics that distinguish them) produces clear guidance about the work needed to produce them.

In the world of industrial work, process outputs are well-defined. The objective of process improvement is to produce increasing quantities of this uniform output more efficiently over time. Holding the outputs constant allows process improvement to proceed by identifying and eliminating activities that don't add value to the output; to break down, reorder, and redesign process steps to create more standard outputs with less input; and so on.

Knowledge work does not produce standardized, well-defined outputs. Instead, the value of its outputs depends on how well they match the unique needs of their users. No one is interested in a spreadsheet full of someone else's data; no teacher is likely to value a copy of a paper you've submitted to another class. Understanding what aspects and features of a knowledge work product are most valuable to its intended user is key to focusing efforts on producing the desired deliverable.

Defining Deliverables

The better we can define deliverables, the better and more effective we can make our knowledge work. Rather than ignore the end product, we need to be systematic in extracting as much as we can about the expected deliverable that can guide our effort to create it. There are three productive paths to explore in using the deliverable to drive your knowledge work.

  • Path #1: Understand the user's essential quality need

  • Does this deliverable need to be exactly correct whatever the time or cost, as good as possible given a particular deadline/budget, or the best you can come up with on the phone? Each deliverable demands a different approach; each requires a conversation (and perhaps a negotiation) with the end user. The history of systems development is littered with examples of failing to follow this path.

  • Path #2: Balance uniqueness and uniformity

  • We've been conditioned by one hundred years of industrial experience to value uniformity. In knowledge work, the value of uniformity is to free time and attention for the essential uniqueness we've defined. The folks in marketing may believe that corporate identify standards are about branding. For a knowledge worker, they let you ignore formatting decisions to focus on the content that matters.

  • Path #3: Specify stopping conditions

  • There was an old joke in my early consulting days that you knew the design phase was complete when the budget ran out. Possibly the biggest challenge for managing knowledge work is determining how to recognize that the deliverable is done. Think of the unfinished doctoral dissertations and manuscripts of the great American novel gathering dust on a shelf or lost in a lonely directory of a disk drive. Too many knowledge-work efforts fail simply because no one thinks about how to recognize what "done" will look like.

The world of software development has made as much progress here as any knowledge-work field with notions such as release management and using target error rates to determine readiness to release. Prototyping and iterative development represent other techniques that use the deliverable to control the process as it proceeds. All can be thought of as attempts to define or begin to create the deliverable as early as possible in the process and to specify what constitutes done as objectively as possible.

The fundamental secret to improving knowledge work is understanding and working out what it means to start with the end in mind. The value of knowledge work is in creating an end result that most effectively meets the unique requirements of a particular customer or end user. Time invested in understanding what that deliverable should look like will yield the greatest return in defining and focusing the activities that contribute to creating that particular deliverable at the right time and place.

About the Author

Jim McGee is a Director at Huron Consulting Group where he helps clients improve their IT organizations and the practice of knowledge work.

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