Helpful hint: how to empower knowledge workers

Increasing productivity with little or no financial outlay has been a consistent theme of late.

A recent Harvard Business Review looked at why some knowledge workers are more productive than others. They discovered the primary difference in how these workers do work is that they have the power to shape their work environment — which means that they can customise, upgrade, and even create new information technology to raise their productivity.

If we look throughout history, workers’ productivity has always been impacted by the quality of the tools they use. In physical work, a man with a plough is much more productive than one with a shovel.

Yet many firms — in their desire to save money by creating “standard” information environments — actually hamper the potential productivity of their knowledge workers. It’s the knowledge work equivalent of outlawing ploughs.

An easy test of whether your firm is empowering your high valued employees is to test how easy or difficult it is for them to get an additional computer screen, a known productivity-booster.

Given how cheap screens are these days, if it’s difficult, your restrictions are probably too tough.

HBR also found that in teams of high performing knowledge workers, there was a member of the team who had deep knowledge of both the work content and the tools used to support the work. Because they understood both the domain and the tools, these individuals took an idea from concept to implementation quickly. These individuals were known as ‘bitsmiths’.

For example, one investment bank had an infrastructure team that created a massive internal computing cloud that allowed any authorised trading group to configure hundreds or even thousands of computers within a week. This technology capability exceeded anything that this firm could buy from Google or IBM.

There are two lessons here which form the basis of this week’s helpful hint:

1. Are you empowering your highly paid knowledge workers to positively impact their working environment? If not, how can you do that in a low cost, high value way?

2. And, do your organisation’s teams of high-performance knowledge workers have a ‘bitsmith’? If so, how can you utilise their skills and maximise their impact across the team? If not, why not?