Drucker on Knowledge Worker Productivity, Part 1

In his book, Management Challenges for the 21st Century, Peter Drucker analyzed and discussed the new paradigms of management.

Although much of the discussion revolves around the perspective of the organization, these are my takeaways on how we can apply his teaching on our journey of being a knowledge worker.

In this chapter, Drucker discussed worker productivity for both manual work and knowledge work. In the 20th century, businesses focused on manual workers’ productivity and reaped a tremendous amount of benefits.

In the 21st century, Drucker believed the most valuable asset of any institution, whether for or non-profit, will be its knowledge workers and their productivity.

According to Drucker, six factors can influence the knowledge worker’s productivity.

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

While manual work productivity asks the question of “How can we do something faster and more cheaply,” the question for knowledge work should be “Who is this for and why do we want to do it?”

2. Knowledge workers must own responsibility for their productivity. Another word, knowledge workers must manage themselves with autonomy.

For manual work, the bosses and managers own the primary responsibility of keeping their worker productivity. It is the opposite of knowledge work.

3. Continuing innovation must be part of the knowledge work.

For manual productivity, doing things faster and producing things cheaper per unit are the goal. For knowledge workers, our work must be innovative by being purposeful and aiming at a leadership posture.

4. Knowledge work requires continuous learning, and equally continuous teaching on the knowledge worker’s part.

Manual worker’s productivity relies on obedience and compliance.

5. Quantity of output is not the primary productivity concern for knowledge workers.

For manual productivity, it is mostly about the quantity of output. The quality aspect of the manual work is to meet a minimum standard. Exceeding such minimum standard is welcome but not essential for manual work.

On the other hand, the productivity of knowledge work must aim first at obtaining the optimum, if not maximum, quality. Only after achieving the quality goal, we can ask ourselves the question of quantity or volume. This quality-first posture also means that the knowledge workers must think through the definition of quality for our work.

6. Finally, Drucker asserted that the productivity of knowledge workers requires that we treat the people as an “asset” rather than a “cost.”