Knowledge Workers

Empowering Knowledge Workers

            Leading change has been a focal point of this website thus far. Understanding Lewin’s three stage process of change (unfreezing, moving, and then refreezing) is essential to properly affecting a change in any organization.  Being aware of an organization’s culture and how it will react to a suggested change is also paramount. A third dimension discussed, essential to enacting change, has been the importance of aligning your employee’s values with those of the organization as well as the importance of ensuring that the organization’s stated values are actually being delivered. A fourth aspect of leading change is the importance of understanding what type of employees you are attempting to lead. With different types of employees, managers need to employ different strategies in order to facilitate change within their workgroups. In this day and age, knowledge workers are one of the most important employee groups and also can be the most difficult to lead. In order for businesses to succeed in today’s economy, they must focus on leveraging the knowledge assets of the company. Knowledge has become a competitive advantage for companies and an attempt must be made to guard against its leakage from the organization. It takes an entirely different approach to motivate a knowledge worker than it does a manual laborer. Attempting to align the values of a knowledge worker to that of the organization can be a bit tricky. Oftentimes companies institute structure in order to harness the knowledge and keep it in house, but this can stifle the acquisition of further knowledge. Organizations must find a balance between structure and empowerment of the knowledge worker that will foster innovation yet keep knowledge assets from leaking out of the company.

            Over fifty years ago, Peter Drucker coined the phrase knowledge worker and discussed the importance knowledge would have in future economies. “The most valuable asset of a 21st-century institution (whether business or non-business) will be its knowledge workers and their productivity.”[1] His theories remain relevant to this day. Burton Gummer highlights Drucker’s work in his article “Managing Knowledge and Knowledge Workers in Organizations: When You Got It, Flaunt It! Drucker expounded on Fred Taylor’s scientific management theory by pointing out the differences between manual work and knowledge work. Taylor broke down manual labor into small steps which could be reviewed and optimized for efficiency. “The first step in making the manual worker more productive is to look at the task and to analyze its constituent motions. The next step is to record each motion, the physical effort it takes, and the time it takes. Then motions that are not needed can be eliminated.”[2]  He also suggested that workers be assigned tasks relevant to their capabilities and motivations to complete the jobs successfully. Taylor linked knowledge and work, suggesting that those most knowledgeable about a task should be the ones given the task.  Drucker furthered this theory by discussing knowledge workers as a defined group and what can drive their productivity. He states that

knowledge workers must, on their own, identify the task that they are to accomplish; knowledge workers have to have autonomy; continuing innovation has to be part of knowledge work; knowledge work requires continuous learning and continuous teaching on the part of the knowledge worker; knowledge worker productivity is primarily a matter of quality of output, not quantity; and finally, the knowledge worker must be seen by management as an asset rather than a cost.”[3]

 Drucker theorizes that if these six factors are emphasized, a knowledge worker’s productivity can be greatly enhanced. Drucker places particular importance on the last of these factors, that of defining the knowledge worker as an asset. “Economic theory and most business practices see manual workers as a cost. To be productive, knowledge workers must be considered a capital asset. Costs need to be controlled and reduced. Assets need to be made to grow.”[4] Empowerment is one of the key components leading to growth of knowledge workers.

            F. Jarrar Yassar and Mohamed Zairi conducted a survey of top UK companies “that aimed at identifying the current trends and best practices in employee empowerment by analyzing case studies of pioneering organizations.”[5] This study points toward the belief that success of a company revolves around retention of its knowledge assets not that of its physical assets. They estimate that “60 to 70% of all process learning is eventually acquired by competitors” and that competitive advantage hinges on keeping knowledge in-house. [6] According to the study, “employee empowerment was one of the critical success elements.”[7] The problem, though, is that there are many ideas and definitions as to what empowerment looks like. This study reviewed best practices of leading UK organizations and presented these empowerment ideas to the respondents who assessed whether or not they were a critical part of their success as a knowledge worker. Participation in decision making was overwhelmingly cited as a success factor. Yassar and Zairi discuss the attitude of Xerox Corporation where “the ultimate accountability strategy is all about creating an organization of 15,000 effective business people, where everybody thinks about the future, everybody amazes customers, and everybody manages the bottom line.”[8] A high percentage of respondents thought that having organizations allow them to set and monitor their own goals was a great way to increase their accountability. Yassar and Zairi also looked toward autonomy as another significant motivator. The practice of giving employees the “responsibility and authority to break the rules [in order] to enable excellent service and total customer satisfaction, received a large level of support.”[9]  This support was tempered by the insistence that nobody was advocating anything unethical. Interestingly enough, letting an employee set his or her own work schedule was not seen as a high motivational factor; only 30% of respondents noted this as an important factor. Designing your own workspace and casual dress standards were actually frowned upon, pointing towards the need for a little bit of imposed structure.  The study concluded that “organizations must be ready to offer a system of empowerment to allow employees to produce their full potential [and that] any residues of the command and control culture are very strong obstacles for achieving maximum employee potential.”[10] The authors point to the need of many organizations to change their management style to accommodate these ideas and practices in order to capitalize on their knowledge assets.

            Brook Manville and Josiah Ober take these empowerment concepts to another level in their Harvard Business Review article, “Beyond Empowerment, Building a Company of Citizens.” The authors look back to ancient Greece for inspiration as to how to manage knowledge workers. The Athenian democracy was managed in a way that encouraged creativity and brought citizens together for common causes.  This setup empowered the Athenians to act collectively in an open forum, nurturing change. The author’s believe that incorporating Athenian values into organizational culture would “help harness the capabilities and commitment of knowledge workers.”[11]  The Athenian system encompassed the entire society and grew and changed based on the needs of the citizens. Manville and Ober reflect that “any managerial structure that is to have true meaning to knowledge workers must also emerge naturally from their own aspirations and initiatives, and a productive corporate culture must [encompass] all aspects of an organization and its management.”[12] They discuss how the Athenian democratic system discouraged anything that separated citizens from the government. It encompassed participatory structures for making decisions, resolving disputes, and managing activities; a set of communal values that defined people’s relationships with one another; and an array of practices of engagement that ensured the broad participation of the entire citizenry.”[13] Manville and Ober suggest that for companies today to retain a competitive advantage, they must leverage their knowledge workers. They need to encourage innovation, free thinking, and debate. Knowledge workers need to be a more significant participant in the decision making processes of the organization and be given the flexibility to fulfill their potential while contributing to the company as a whole. Knowledge workers’ values need to be aligned with the over-arching vision of the corporation. “For ancient Athenians and for knowledge workers today, motivation came from a higher purpose- from a sense of shared ownership in their community’s destiny. In most companies today there is a tension between the employee’s individual will and the will of the organization.”[14] Manville and Ober propose that if a company allows their knowledge workers to become citizens of the organization, giving them the privileges and responsibilities associated with citizenry, then those employees will be committed to the organization and strive toward the overall vision; a vision they have helped compose.

The authors go on to say that many company’s today foster employability contracts that offer continuing education for the employee in exchange for a higher commitment from the employee. They suggest that instead of fostering these types of agreements, organizations need to invest in moral reciprocity contracts which imbed the knowledge workers’ values in the organization and binds them morally to the company. According to Manville and Ober “employability does not foster long-term loyalty – it envisions each worker’s likely departure.”[15] In contrast moral reciprocity offers employees “the chance to meaningfully participate in steering one’s own destiny, the opportunity to gain the sincere respect of one’s peers, and an honest stake in making the community more successful through one’s own work and ideas.”[16]

The study concludes that in order for companies to truly foster a community of citizens within their organization, there must be idealistic changes in the overall company culture. These changes must open the company’s decision making processes to the employees, holding the merit of each decision of higher importance than the stature of those suggesting the answers. This will allow the best decisions to be made. The culture must also foster the ability for employees to challenge processes that are in place in an effort to achieve a more efficient state. Companies will need to lay down a vision that thoroughly describes what it means to be a citizen of the organization and ensure that all employees, including middle management, buy into the vision in order for it to be successful.

Empowering knowledge workers seems to be key in creating a successful organizational culture in today’s markets. Susan Heathfield gives valuable insight into reasons why companies fail when attempting to empower their employees in her article “Top Ten Ways to Make Employee Empowerment Fail.”   She states that empowerment of employees is “one of the most important strategic methods to motivate employees.”[17] She dives into the reasons why empowerment strategies are rarely successful.  The most significant reason is because leaders do not truly believe in its benefits and, therefore, do not stand behind the principles and undermine efforts aimed at employee empowerment. “Employees know when you are serious about employee empowerment and when you understand and walk your talk.”[18] Secondly, a high percentage of leaders do not understand the true meaning of empowerment. Many believe that it involves getting input from employees at meetings and then deliberating on their input behind closed doors, when in fact it means allowing the employees to actually make final strategy decisions that affect the organization as a whole. Organizations can fail to establish guidelines regarding decision making when empowering their employees, so employees are left uncertain about their role. Companies also undermine empowerment by micromanaging employees after you have committed to an empowerment strategy. Heathfield stresses that management “cannot undermine or change the decision you had empowered a staff person to make.”[19] Let your staff make mistakes, mentor them through the process, and in so doing, build their confidence for the next run. Heathfield argues that management “failing to provide growth and challenging opportunities,” as well as “failing to provide access to training, information, and learning opportunities for employees” are significant drivers of empowerment strategy failures. She goes on to state further that managers need to take responsibility for their team’s decisions when a mistake is made, instead of blaming individuals. If blame is constantly placed, the individuals will shy away from the decision making process, and the empowerment strategy will stall. Heathfield encourages organizations to make sure that compensation is adequately doled out in exchange for responsibility. If employees are under the impression that they are not being compensated fairly, employee empowerment will fail simply because the individuals will not go the extra mile for the company. She advocates creating a culture of empowerment; one in which “empowerment [is] not something a manager bestows on employees, but rather a philosophy and strategy to help people develop talents, skills, and decision making competency [which will] help employees feel competent, capable, and successful.”[20]

Managing knowledge workers can be a bit tricky. Motivating them to contribute fully into the corporate vision is another matter altogether. Empowerment is one strategy that can give knowledge workers the freedom and desire to contribute with a higher level of commitment.  “By reallocating power from the upper levels of the company, and giving lower level workers more control, you can start to bring your company’s vision to life through every person in the organization.”[21] The attached exercise is designed to help leaders understand empowerment. Without a complete understanding of empowerment, management will be unable to implement an empowerment strategy effectively. At the end of this exercise leaders should understand:

·         The basic attitudes necessary for an empowered workplace

·         The key elements of empowerment and how to develop these in themselves and their teams

·         How empowered delegation can improve workplace performance.[22]                 

            [23]                                               [24]

 


[1] Gummer, B. “Managing Knowledge and Knowledge Workers in Organizations: When You Got It, Flaunt It!” Administration in Social Work. 20/4. (2000):76.

[2] Ibid. 76.

[3] Ibid. 78.

[4] Ibid. 79.

[5] Yasar F. Jarrar, Mohamed Zairi.  "Employee empowerment – a UK survey of trends and best practices", Managerial Auditing Journal. 17/5. (2002): 267.

[6] Ibid. 269.

[7] Ibid. 269.

[8] Ibid. 272.

[9] Ibid. 272.

[10] Ibid. 275.

[11] Manville, Brook, and Josiah Ober. "Beyond empowerment: Building a company of citizens." Harvard Business Review. 81/1.(2003):48.

[12] Ibid. 49.

[13] Ibid. 49.

[14] Ibid. 50.

[15] Ibid. 51.

[16] Ibid. 51.

[17] Heathfield, Susan M. “Top Ten Ways to Make Employee Empowerment Fail; Five Reasons Employee Empowerment Fails.” Human Resources. About.com. (2004):1. <http://humanresources.about.com/od/involvementteams/a/empowerment.htm>

[18] Ibid. 1.

[19] Ibid. 1.

[20] Ibid. 2.

[21] “Empowerment and Delegation.” Bite-Sized Training. Mind Tools Club, n.d. Web 26 Oct 2011. 3. <http://www.mindtools.com/community/Bite-SizedTraining/BiteSizedTraining-Empowerment.pdf>

[22] Ibid. 3.

[23]Ibid. 4.

[24] “Empowerment and Delegation-Suggested Solutions.” Bite-Sized Training. Mind Tools Club, n.d. Web 26 Oct 2011. 1-7. <http://www.mindtools.com/community/Bite-SizedTraining/ BSSTEmpowermentSuggestedSolutions.pdf>

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Robert Pannell,
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Robert Pannell,
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Robert Pannell,
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Robert Pannell,
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Robert Pannell,
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Robert Pannell,
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