Knowledge Worker Productivity Requires Autonomy

Had a discussion couple of posts ago about how to ensure that workers are productive and do the right things. Found a quote from Peter Drucker that goes right to the heart of the issue of what is needed to manage knowledge workers.

The discussion was in the post “ACM: Feature or Paradigm” about Adaptive Case Management (ACM), and whether the worker can be trusted to be customer oriented and to do the right thing.  I often see this kind of discussion around BPM:  Theory X management says that the workers are self-interested or at least lazy, and Theory Y management says that workers can have the understanding and work for the goals of the organization. There is no single best answer, the approach to management will depend upon the job and the skill level of the workers.

Many people look to BPM as a way to codify Theory X.  They want to assure that the worker does the right thing every time.  Partially because the worker might make mistakes, but also because the worker might not be trusted, and BPM can prevent them from doing the wrong thing.

But when the conversation shifts to ACM and knowledge workers are involved, it is the nature of knowledge work that requires that A completely different approach be taken.  Nobody says this better than Peter Drucker, from his book Management Challenges for the 21st Century (page 142):

SIX major factors determine knowledge-worker productivity

1. Knowledge worker productivity demands that we ask the question: “What is the task?

2. It demands that we impose the responsibility for their productivity on the individual knowledge workers themselves.  Knowledge workers have to manage themselves.  They have to have autonomy.

3. Continuing innovation has to be part of the work, the task, and the responsibility of knowledge workers.

4. Knowledge work requires continuous learning on the part of the knowledge worker, but equally continuous teaching on the part of the knowledge worker.

5. Productivity of the knowledge worker is not — at least not primarily — a matter of the quantity of output.  Quality is at least as important.

6. Finally, knowledge-worker productivity requires that the knowledge worker is both seen and treated as an “asset” rather than a “cost.”  It requires that knowledge workers want to work for the organization in preference to all other opportunities.

I think it is really important that we see the difference in the approach that we need to take with a knowledge worker, from how we might approach a routine job.  Those saying that BPM and ACM are the same thing often misjudge how big an effect something like the above will have on how you design support systems.  BPM systems in general tend to be oriented toward control, but Drucker says that that is exactly the wrong thing for a knowledge worker.

ACM is designed to meet the demands of managing and supporting knowledge workers.


7 thoughts on “Knowledge Worker Productivity Requires Autonomy

  1. I am sure that humans which could grow in an environment of autonomy and not of pressure will be Y-humans. And I observe that the intrinsic motiviation is high if a human is not controlled by others. This means that he is working for his goals and not for others. So the art is to define goals by a buttom up manner. Otherwise you may not have any goal an employee may work for with an optimal motivation.
    And I am sure that the members of a organisational unit will in sum know better than the manager how to do the work best. And I predict that we will see in the next year a strong change to self coordinating teams without the old fashioned manager.
    We will need less hierarchies and so we can decrease the high earns. And this will lead to pay the employees more fair and this again will decrease compliance violation.
    Another positive effect will be the decrease of depression. In German we do have 3 of 80 Million people to be under the doctor. The more pressure we see on the market and given to the employees the more depression there will be.
    We can learn from the areas of knowledge workers and I am sure the most of us can be such a worker if we want to have him.

  2. Good analysis and it should be stressed even more that BPM is about control and ACM about empowerment for workers/users. And everything that is added to BPM like “social” or “adaptive” or however it’s tagged is about increasing control and stifling user initiative. What that means can be seen everyday in customer services, where rigid systems provoke mind-boggling experiences that make a good laugh in the blogosphere but in reality are embarrassing for the customer and, in most cases, completely unnecessary if the underlying approach were different.

  3. (copied from Linked in) Elizabeth Miles says:

    This is so very true. Professional people need systems within which they can exercise their judgement, not where they are controlled.

    In such cases professional autonomy is indeed required. However there is still an issue of accountability that usually has to be worked in somewhere especially if a client is paying for a service (and even more so perhaps if payment is on a time and materials basis).

    If we look at ‘goal based’ projects would you not agree that a healthy approach is to review progress at regular milestones and allow peers or clients also to check on progress, raise challenges where necessary and request a prognosis or target timelines and costs?

  4. I agree – for knowledge worker processes – flexibility, tracking and participant empowerment replace predefined process structure and centralized control. For me that is the key differentiator between ACM and BPM.
    Jacob Ukelson – CTO ActionBase

  5. Hello Keith:
    The riots in London and how social interaction to take control conducted me revisiting this post, specially how far should knowledge people should be set be free in business environment. More than a discussion between old school and progressive thinking, the approach of letting people choose the path and the tools to collaborate is not very straightforward and I think that cannot be a framework to the dismay of many people. In the comments of this post –

    I wrote some add on regarding how it’s difficult, but on the other hand a great quest to find balance of knowledge management world.

    Business people and IT people need to work very close together to figure it out how to provide the right environment to people to collaborate. I think this is more an ad-hoc human transaction until some best practices can be put in place rather than a prescriptive method to achieve such empowerment paradigm that adaptive case management likes to support.

    Alberto Manuel

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