Learning to Love Productivity – From Information to Knowledge Work

We need to reinvent the way we work and redefine productivity by matching the variables technology, time, man and space. Guest post by Thorsten Hübschen.

When Microsoft founder Bill Gates published his memo entitled New World of Work in May 2005, there had already been indications that the next wave of productivity will have to emerge from knowledge work.

Information work as we had known it since the 80s in fact had an impact on our knowledge and our data. However, everyday life was still trapped in rigid processes and marked by routine activities – it was a world in which office productivity used to be measured by the number of emails or phone calls.

The Future of Work consists of communicative thought processes and social interaction. We need to reinvent the way we work in the office from scratch – and, above all, apply an integrated approach. We need tools that perfectly support our thinking processes and communication between people and between people and machines. We also need office structures in which knowledge work flourishes and prospers. Which environment best supports our thought processes, our communication, our teamwork? Microsoft is intensively considering this question – and creating our office building in line with utterly new principles.

Building an organisation for knowledge work

We are also talking about the organizational framework a lot. How do we need to organize knowledge work? How should knowledge workers be managed? We are increasingly discussing this issue with our customers as well. Whereas we used to strictly focus on how fast Microsoft is able to supply 10,000 Office Packs, many customers now want to know how Microsoft itself succeeds in implementing knowledge work.

The variables technology, man and space can no longer be separated. We are watching customers introduce social enterprise technologies like Yammer – and fail because their corporate culture and management structures do not fit. The reason: In a corporate culture shaped by mistrust and lack of transparency, even the best tools will not result in enhanced collaboration.

In a world in which value is essentially created from knowledge work, we need to adapt the organization of work to the requirements of knowledge workers to get more productive. Unfortunately, many processes do not sufficiently encourage knowledge work. The same applies to our management culture.

Avoiding Digital Taylorism

The old Tayloristic regime of corporate culture is focused on guiding employees through processes and supervising them. This will no longer work in the future. Managing knowledge workers successfully requires the reinvention of work based on the employee’s self-organization and self-responsibility as well as people management leaders who consider themselves less a supervisor than a coach for employees. We should primarily avoid detailed instructions for the method of work, the exact definition of time and place, small-scale work tasks, one-way communication and provisions whose correlation with corporate objectives is not identifiable – thereby ensuring we are not turning industrial Taylorism into digital Taylorism.

For many decades we have learned that productivity is linked to terms like quality assurance, cost effectiveness, reliability and efficiency. Specifically in Germany, we are successful because we are capable of manufacturing predefined reproducible results in high quality and at low cost. The development of high-quality, replicable processes is tightly woven into the DNA of our entire economy. This is why many organizations struggle with the transition to knowledge work – after all, the old way of work has always been extremely successful.

Asking the right productivity questions

Nevertheless, we need to change our view urgently – and ask the right questions: How should we actually measure productivity in the future? How do we manage to ensure that each individual’s work has a direct causal relation with the result on the market? If half of the employees in an enterprise are stuck in processes whose effect on external objectives cannot be measured directly, the fundamental question arises: Do we need this kind of work at all? Will we not ultimately have to redefine productivity and find a new formula for its measurability? And will we be able to learn to love productivity again?

Between now and the start of NEXT15, I would like to recommend the book Out of Office by Dr. Elke Frank and myself, moreover, The Business Romantic written by keynote speaker Tim Leberecht, or the recent article published by the Guardian.
Let us discuss these issues in more detail at NEXT in Hamburg. I look forward to it!

Guest contribution by Dr. Thorsten Hübschen (@ThorHuebschen)
Business Group Lead, Microsoft Office Division, Microsoft Germany