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Knowledge Is Power: Social and the Productivity-Based Business Case

We've all heard the claim that social business approaches increase worker productivity. But if you're looking to use that as the business case for your social business initiative, you should know — it's not as straightforward as many would have us believe.

If you've been paying attention then you’ll know that this is the fourth article in my mini-series exploring the social business phenomenon.

In the last article we discussed the findings of a recent report which claimed that although increasing numbers of executives are recognizing the importance of social, the majority of companies are stuck in first gear and making little progress in becoming social businesses. Respondents to the survey cited three barriers holding companies back with regard to social: a lack of strategy, a lack of proven business case or strong value proposition, and too many competing priorities.

I tackled the first of those issues and argued that the key to developing a successful social business strategy is to understand whether your aim is to improve operational capabilities, how you earn money today; or your dynamic capabilities, how your organization can adapt to change and earn money tomorrow. Or to make it really simple — productivity or innovation. 

Now for a look at productivity:

Productivity is About People, Not Technology

In my experience almost every executive claims that knowledge worker productivity is important to their organization, but few can define it, almost none measure it and no one seems to be sure who is actually responsible for improving it.

Management guru Peter Drucker, the man widely credited with coining the phrase, “Knowledge worker,” famously claimed that achieving a 50 percent increase in the productivity of manual workers was the greatest management achievement of the 20th century and that delivering a similar increase in the productivity of knowledge workers was the greatest management challenge of the 21st century. Drucker argued that six factors determine knowledge worker productivity and he distinguished it from manual worker productivity.

1. Knowledge work and knowledge worker productivity is difficult to define. How do you measure the productivity of a doctor? Measuring a sales person’s productivity in terms of sales revenue doesn't take into consideration relationship building, or the fact that the research they do or proposals they write might be re-used by colleagues.

2. Knowledge workers are specialists who understand their work better than managers and this implies that they must take responsibility for their own productivity. They must have autonomy.

3. and 4. Continuing innovation and learning must be part of the work and again, must be the responsibility of the knowledge worker.

5. Knowledge worker productivity must be measured in both quantity and quality dimensions. It’s not about how many decisions a manager makes, but how good those decisions are.

6. Knowledge worker productivity requires that the worker is seen and treated as an asset rather than a cost. The knowledge worker must want to do the work. Drucker points out that each of these requirements, except the last, is the exact opposite of what was required to increase the productivity of manual workers.

The key message here is that the productivity of knowledge workers is strongly influenced by approaches to managing people, and that managing knowledge workers and knowledge work is very different from managing manual workers. If you don’t get that right then throwing software at the problem probably won’t help much.

Access to Information and Expertise

Many evangelists cite the theory of weak ties as an academic foundation for the argument that social business approaches improve knowledge worker productivity.

American sociologist Mark Granovetter published The Strength of Weak Ties in 1973. The research looked at how people found jobs. The majority of people in the study found new roles through acquaintances with which they had infrequent contact (weak ties), rather than friends that they knew well and saw regularly (strong ties). According to Granovetter weak ties provide efficient access to novel information. The argument is that enterprise social networks have the potential to improve knowledge worker productivity by reducing the amount of time it takes to find information and expertise.

 

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