Knowledge worker productivity

It's a 'well known fact' that it is very hard to measure knowledge worker productivity. This I found out when I was asked how the productivity of people in staff roles who were teleworking should be measured. By staff roles I mean functional jobs that do not have readily available quantitative outputs attached to them. An internal consultant is an example – how is his/her productivity measured?

This question has come into focus as we grapple with extending teleworking. One of the resistances to it is that managers fear they won't be able to tell whether an 'invisible' worker i.e. one not physically present in front of their eyes, is being productive. The teleworker feels that he/she cannot prove value add productivity if the work involves, say researching for an article, or planning a strategy.

Peter Drucker, in 1999, wrote that

Increasingly, the ability of organizations – and not only of businesses – to survive will come to depend on their "comparative advantage" in making the knowledge worker more productive.

More than ten years later there is little movement in the research or application field of how to measure productivity. Some people have put forward ideas.

One of the frequently cited articles is by Yuri Ramirez and David Nembhard "Measuring Knowledge Worker Productivity: A Taxonomy", published in 2004 in The Journal of Intellectual Capital (Vol 5, Issue 4). These researcher cover the field to that point and do a good job of presenting the methods people have tried using and the benefits and pitfalls of each. They conclude their paper saying

… overall, there is agreement that no generalized methods exist to measure knowledge worker productivity efficiently, partly because knowledge work is intangible and difficult to categorize in sub-groups. We note that there is a general belief that knowledge workers should be included in the efforts of deciding how to measure their productivity.

However, in one article by Riikka Antikainen & Antti Lonnqvist, of the Institute of Industrial Management Tampere University of Technology a knowledge worker productivity measurement instrument is offered. The authors say about this:

It is especially designed for measuring productivity in knowledge-intensive organisations. KWPA can be used to identify possible problems in factors of productivity as well as targets for development. It consists of a combination of a questionnaire and several employee interviews. The results of the questionnaire provide an overall description of various factors related to productivity while the interviews provide more in-depth information of specific issues.

The approach is a subjective one which is discussed as follows:

The fact that KWPA is based on subjective data can be seen both as a weakness and a benefit. The reliability of subjective data can be dubious, since they are exposed to false answers and respondents' biases. On the other hand, the fact that knowledge workers tend to care more about how they perceive their work than about the reality observed by someone else, speaks up for the subjective measurement. There practically is no other way to collect information about employees' conceptions of their productivity and the factors affecting it. This has also been the opinion of those organisations that have participated in the research.

Confronting the issue of knowledge worker productivity head on – by acknowledging that any measurement will be subjective seems like the best way to go. I think how my client group will address it will be by asking the knowledge workers as a workgroup how they would measure their productivity. Drucker suggests starting with a clear understanding of the task and proceeding from that point. The survey and interview of Antikainen and Lonnqvist starts from the premise that the knowledge worker is clear on what his/her task is.

Three case studies are outlined in this paper but one issue with it is that it is undated. I have emailed the authors to see if there is any further information they have collected since the article was written (I'm guessing it was about 2005 or 2006 as they have cited works published in 2005). Meanwhile I will continue working on the knotty problem of how to satisfy managers that the productivity of knowledge workers is measurable. Any help on this would be welcomed.

NOTE: After I posted this I received a reply to my email from Antti Lonnqvist, saying, "The paper has been published in a conference: Antikainen, R. & Lonnqvist, A. 2005. Knowledge Worker Productivity Assessment. 3rd Conference on Performance Measurement and Management, Nice, France, September 2005. Other publications by myself and my colleagues can be found at ==>“ Publications." Thank you Antti.