Boosting the productivity of knowledge workers


boosting the productivity of knowledge workers

I noticed an article on with the above title and it seemed pretty relevant to the news item we published last week on the Cambridge Network and elsewhere which asked the question: How much does a knowledge worker cost for a small-to-medium sized high-tech company?

The answer lies in a short paper we wrote and is available in the Library here.

The article was a short summary of a longer piece available on the McKinsey site (registration required). It's derived from the results of a long-term research project using data from 200 knowledge workers at 4 large-sized research organisations, supplemented with 35 interviews from a further 3 large companies. One of the authors (Laurence Prusak) was a contributor to a paper entitled “The cost of knowledge”  published in the Harvard Business Review in November 2006. I hadn't read it, so I looked that up too.

The 2010 article makes the point that 1/2 the time of knowledge workers is spent on interactions, so if you can improve those you boost overall productivity. The way you improve interactions is by removing as many barriers as possible.

There is a breakdown of the 5 types of barrier that exist:

  1. Physical barriers of geography and time zones
  2. Technical barriers - the lack of tools for overcoming physical barriers
  3. Social & Cultural barriers - the absence of a community of practice
  4. Contextual barriers - making sense of the very specific expertise available
  5. Temporal barriers - lack of time presumably caused by information overload

It's a useful list and worth a read to understand some strategies for overcoming these barriers.

Where I saw a link to the paper we'd written was on the Temporal barrier - people feeling that they just don't have the time to get things done at all or at least as well as they might have liked.

We took a look at the compound effects that results from making improvements to the tools knowledge workers use for managing content. Using a mix of data about the average time spent on office tasks combined with the latest survey of scientist and technologist salaries by the UK Government, the paper shows how a 50-person company can realise a five-times return on investment in the first year.

Just as importantly in these cash-strapped times, the paper shows how the right type of pay-as-you-go software licensing can result in that initial investment being as low as £15,000. That's less than 1% of the direct labour costs.

Whenever I read ROI papers I am frequently alienated by the "save $zillions" claims that they make. So we tried to be conservative by maximising costs and minimising benefits. Maybe saving around £70,000 a year in a 50 person company isn't an "OMG" type number. But it seems like a simple investment that pays back almost immediately and it makes employees less stressed by improving their productivity.

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Tags: Document Management and Control

Paul Walsh

Written by Paul Walsh

Paul Walsh was one of the founders of Cognidox. After a period as an academic working in user experience (UX) research, Paul started a 25-year career in software development. He's worked for multinational telecom companies (Nortel), two $1B Cambridge companies (Ionica, Virata), and co-founded a couple of startup companies. His experience includes network management software, embedded software on silicon, enterprise software, and cloud computing.

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