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Knowledge Workers: 10,000 Times the Productivity

Monday, April 7th, 2008

“Do you believe that the Information/Knowledge Worker Age we’re moving into will outproduce the Industrial Age fifty times? I believe it will. We’re just barely beginning to see it…Nathan Myhrvold, former chief technology officer at Microsoft, puts it this way: ‘The top software developers are more productive than average software developers not by a factor of 10X or 100X or even 1000X but by 10,000X.’ Quality knowledge work is so valuable that unleashing its potential offers organizations an extraordinary opportunity for value creation.”

Stephen R. Covey, The 8th Habit

There is no doubt a new era has begun. We’re shifting from the Industrial Age to the Information/Knowledge Worker Age, and it is paramount that we understand the paradigms that drive this new era. What brought success in one economic age will not lead to it in the next. This week we ask Dr. Covey about the new mind-set, skill-set, and tool-set required to thrive in the Knowledge Worker Age.

Q: You refer frequently to the Knowledge Worker Age or Era, and we can read in several publications where the current period of history is referenced that way. Where does the term come from and what does it mean?

A: I believe it was Peter Drucker that first coined the term knowledge worker. I don’t know if he used the word era or not. He used the term to acknowledge that we were moving from an era that valued things, like machines, for what they produced into an era that values knowledge—the application of knowledge that comes in the form of skills.

Q: Are we there, or just moving toward it?

A: Well, we are just moving toward it in many, many industries; but in some high-tech industries, we’re there. Most people are unaware of this sea-lane change that is taking place and, therefore, are not preparing for it. They are unaware because they are not experiencing world-class competition that comes from a new global economy. They are in fact experiencing it indirectly through lowering of costs and elimination of a lot of bureaucracy and the uplifting of quality. But it will eventually overtake every profession and every industry. And everyone will be affected by it.

Q: Why is there so much confidence that the Knowledge Worker Age will increase productivity so significantly?

A: Simply because people are empowered; and not only people, but entire cultures. These cultures will experience an internalization of the idea of interdependency so that the mores and norms are supportive of being productive and everyone will be accountable to everybody. This will unleash incredible energy, talent, creativity, resourcefulness, and new ideas. If I could have people understand one key paradigm of the Knowledge Worker Age it would be that you manage things, but you lead people. That is how we will empower them.

Q: What are some characteristics of a team or an organization struggling to apply the principles of this era versus one that is doing it well?

A: The struggling organizations are those that are still being straitjacketed and straddled with Industrial Age structures, systems, and processes, and sometimes even the Industrial Age definition of leadership being a position. The organizations that will make a tremendous productivity gauge will come from those where the cultures are highly interdependent. Their people will be focused on three or four truly significant priorities. There will be a wide sense of mutual accountability and the so-called bosses will become servant leaders in facilitating all of the processes and making sure there is an alignment of these processes, structures, and systems with the high-priority goals.

Q: What actions can people take if they are not in a position of formal authority and their superiors seem to be stuck in the Industrial Age both in mind-set and practice?

A: Leadership is not formal authority, leadership is moral authority. If you are principle-centered, your opportunities for influence increase; and if you’re proactive and take initiative inside your own Circle of Influence, it will get larger. It will primarily get larger because of the pragmatics of the marketplace. You will simply produce more. If you have a subsidized or protected organization that doesn’t have to deal with theses market realities and this new, real, world-class competition, what I said may not happen. And you may find that the old structure and old ways will persist and there will be great resistance to a new style of leadership and to changing these deeply imbedded structures and systems. However, eventually they will have to change. Even organizations that are protected and subsidized are, in time, subject to market forces because they all have budgets and costs they have to get around.

Q: Reversing roles, if you are a boss wanting to increase the productivity of your team, what is the one thing you should be doing with your team to foster that?

A: Ask them that question. If they are codependent upon you and hesitate to speak up, walk out of the room and let them deal with that question. And ask them to bring forth their highest and best recommendations. If they are not codependent upon you, stay in the room and participate. If they push back on you, that’s fine. If you can push back on them without them feeing threatened, you have the basis for synergy and for using third-alternative solutions.

Q: What is the next era?

A: I don’t know what the next era is. I know it will evolve through this Information/ Knowledge Worker Age. I’ve often called the next era the “Era of Wisdom.” But basically that means that the principles of each of the economic ages are brought to bear in the Knowledge Worker Age. For instance, the principle of the work ethic in the Agrarian Age and the hunter and gatherer; the principles of learning and of collaboration and teamwork and efficiency of the Industrial Age; and the principles of constantly learning and improving and applying new technologies in very synergistic and collaborative ways and seeing your own role as a leader to be a servant leader rather than a so-called boss, however benevolent—these will represent the era that we’re moving into little by little. But the actual content of the work to be done, I do not know.

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