Drucker on the Critical Importance of Knowledge Worker Productivity & the Role of Leadership

Management guru writes “A knowledge-based workforce is qualitatively different from a less-skilled one. True, knowledge workers are a minority of the total workforce and are unlikely ever to be more than that. But they have become the major creators of wealth and jobs. Increasingly, the success–indeed, the survival–of every business will depend on the performance of its knowledge workforce. And since it is impossible, according to the laws of statistics, for an organization to hire more than a handful of “better people,” the only way that it can excel in a knowledge-based economy and society is by getting more out of the same kind of people-that is, by managing its knowledge workers for greater productivity. The challenge, to repeat an old saying, is ‘to make ordinary people do extraordinary things.'”

What made the traditional workforce productive was the system, whether it was Frederick Winslow Taylor’s “one best way,” Henry Ford’s assembly line, or W. Edwards Deming’s “total quality management.” The system embodies the knowledge. The system is productive because it enables individual  workers to  perform  without  much  knowledge or skill. In fact, on assembly lines and in TQM shops, a highly skilled individual can be a threat to coworkers and to the entire system. In a knowledge-based organization, however, it is the individual worker’s productivity that makes the entire system successful. In a traditional workforce, the worker serves the system; in a knowledge workforce, the system must serve the worker.

There are enough knowledge-based organizations around to show what that means. What makes a university a great university is that  it attracts and develops outstanding teachers and scholars, making it possible for them to do outstanding  teaching  and research. The same is true of an opera house. But the knowledge-based institution that most nearly resembles a knowledge-based business is the symphony orchestra, in which some 30 different instrumentalists play the same score together as a team. A great orchestra is not composed of great musicians but of adequate ones who produce at  their peak. When a new conductor is hired to tum around an orchestra that has suffered years of drift and neglect, he cannot, as a rule, fire any but a few of the sloppiest or most superannuated players. He also cannot  hire many new orchestra members. He has to make productive what he has inherited. The successful conductors do this by working closely with individual orchestra members and with groups of instrumentalists. The conductor’s employee relations are a given; the players are nearly unchangeable. So it is the conductor’s people skills that make the difference.

From: They’re Not Employees, They’re People, Harvard Business Review, February, 2020 Reprint R0202E. In Classic Drucker, Harvard Business Review,2006, Chapter 4.

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