Peter F. Drucker, who Businessweek declared “the man who invented management,” credited “training” with being “the one truly effective engine of economic development” in the 20th century. In his book, “Post-Capitalist Society,” Drucker argued that training earned this praise due to its critical role transforming an unskilled agrarian population into highly productive industrial labor.

Throughout the 1990s, Drucker cautioned management that knowledge work was a wholly different kind of work than the manual labor for which today’s organizations and management are still designed. He further advised that improving the productivity of knowledge work remained the single greatest challenge facing managers, in his article, “Knowledge-Worker Productivity: The Biggest Challenge,” which appeared in California Management Review.

A search for “improving knowledge worker productivity” suggests this challenge remains unresolved. Has the unprecedented global market expansion of the past 40 years shielded businesses from this reality? If so, today’s sharply rising wages, prices and interest rates may now pressure executives to make knowledge worker productivity a top priority.

A New Responsibility for L&D

Have you considered what role today’s learning and development (L&D) function could play in transforming today’s legacy industrial organizations into the highly productive knowledge-work organizations businesses will need to succeed in the 21st century? There is good reason to believe that L&D can once again be a central force in economic transformation.

I have been leading teams to improve the productivity of knowledge workers for the past 20 years. This experience includes more than 300 projects in large-scale knowledge work operations within major organizations in a wide range of industries and several regions of the world. The effectiveness of these projects enables management to witness firsthand the potential of management systems designed specifically to support knowledge workers. In many cases, these projects compel organization-wide transformations to support all knowledge workers.

Perhaps the challenge isn’t that we don’t know how to improve the productivity of knowledge workers. Rather, it is that executives need to see it work (i.e., at least a pilot program) within their operation before they will bet on a change that could disrupt current success.

This is where L&D gets involved. In most of our projects, the company’s L&D function provides essential support, including employee and executive interviews, group facilitation, work analysis, development program design, and more. Few, if any, other company functions understand both human work and human nature, which are central to improving knowledge worker productivity.

How is Knowledge Work Different?

Current management principles, systems and methods were conceived to control manual work, which creates value by performing standardized tasks – hence the engineering maxim, “variation creates waste.” In contrast, knowledge work depends on variation to create value, with knowledge workers customizing their response to each opportunity to maximize the value created. Figure 1 illustrates this and other differences.

Manual work is divided into standardized tasks — the people performing this work are told what, where and how to do their work. The result is work that can be taught to and performed by most people to yield predictable output at the lowest possible wage cost.

In contrast, knowledge work begins with human capital — a person’s potential to create socioeconomic value based on their education, capability development and experience. This human capital is matched with responsibilities that convey specific opportunities to apply this potential to create value.

Whereas knowledge workers can create “minimum” value just by assuming a responsibility (i.e., response-ability), they can create additional if not unlimited value by:

  • Providing exceptional service (e.g., perceive unspoken needs, demonstrate sincere concern).
  • Exceeding typical business outcomes (e.g., secure a larger contract, lower costs).
  • Creating intellectual assets with continuing value (e.g., develop software, improve process).
  • Supporting management’s strategic intentions (e.g., encourage others, take initiative).

It is this virtually unlimited potential to create value that should drive any attempt to improve knowledge worker productivity. Indeed, the future success of most businesses will depend on management’s continuing ability to identify sources of new socioeconomic value for knowledge workers to actualize.

Stop Limiting Knowledge Worker Productivity

Manual worker productivity is best improved by reducing labor costs. In sharp contrast, knowledge worker productivity is best improved by realizing more of the value potential inherent in each opportunity, which is contingent on three primary factors:

  1. Job and role design (e.g., “win-win” employment terms, robust responsibilities, challenging opportunities, minimal unrelated time demands).
  2. Knowledge worker capability (e.g., human capital, role mastery, achievement intention, work ethic, self-discipline, character, relationships).
  3. Organizational support (e.g., minimal constraints, autonomy, supportive culture, helpful manager, onboarding, development, technology, facilities, adequate resources).

Before we focus on how to improve knowledge worker productivity, take a moment to recall a few specific knowledge workers in your organization (including yourself), and consider their situation relative to these three factors. Can you imagine how potential changes to any of the above factors could improve the person’s productivity?

Chances are you can, because most organizations continue to manage all or most of their people with the same top-down control-oriented management principles, systems and methods conceived a century ago to manage manual workers. Management’s instinct is to retain these methods because they have been highly effective in years past.

The bottom line is that most knowledge workers are being managed like manual workers, which is counterproductive. These are capable people with complex challenges and they need to be organized and managed to give them every possibility to maximize the value realized from their responsibilities and specific opportunities.

You Can Improve Knowledge Worker Productivity

The best place to begin to improve knowledge worker productivity is by better aligning relevant management principles, systems and methods with the knowledge worker’s role and responsibilities by identifying and reducing the impact of whatever is getting in the way of creating greater value. As Drucker affirms in his article, “Knowledge-Worker Productivity: The Biggest Challenge,” this approach alone “usually doubles or triples knowledge-worker productivity, and quite fast.” More can be done, but this is the best starting point.

L&D can do this work — after all, it is just another important project. L&D is adept at working throughout organizations, and many of the management systems are controlled by HR.

The work begins by securing an executive sponsor, identifying a large-scale knowledge work operation with unresolved problems or untapped opportunities, proposing to improve the productivity of a key role by a minimum of 20% (i.e., simply value at 20% of total payroll costs), and securing management’s interest.

The next step is to interview the workers and managers to understand the role and the barriers to increased effectiveness. Share these findings with other workers and managers to refine, clarify and explore potential minimum changes that would enable greater achievement.

Next, negotiate with owners of the relevant management systems (e.g., L&D, information technology, performance management, compensation, recruiting) to secure temporary changes to support an operational experiment for one or more volunteer group(s). The goal is to make enough changes to enable a higher performance level to emerge as evidence of the potential to create additional value.

Now design and develop a temporary “new operational reality” for the participating group(s). Do this privately, to preserve the experimental nature of the experience. When ready, orient the participants and begin the operational experiment, making sure to allow a new culture to arise by separating the group(s) from the remaining organization (i.e., control group).

Run the experiment for three to 12 months, with the stipulation to the volunteer group(s) that the changes being experienced might be adopted only if they result in improved performance. Assess the performance dynamics and results weekly, gathering verbal feedback from individual workers and making limited adjustments to the design when helpful. Keep management informed, and don’t be surprised when management wants to talk about rolling out the changes to everyone in the role.


Am I wrong or is this an initiative that many L&D groups are capable of executing — one that would be valuable for executives to witness firsthand, both to appreciate the untapped potential of their knowledge workers, and to learn a practical method for improving knowledge worker productivity?

Can L&D be the force (once again) to transform people from today’s legacy, industrial-era organization into the knowledge-era organization of highly productive knowledge workers it needs to become for future success?