In a 1999 California Management Review article, Peter Drucker—who is widely regarded as the “father of modern management”—stated that the most important contribution management will need to make in the 21st century will be increasing the productivity of knowledge workers. For that, he argued, organizations must view and treat knowledge workers as “assets” rather than “costs.”1
One of the ideas Drucker was talking about in that piece, and in his many previous published works, was empowerment as a management strategy. Treating knowledge workers as assets means giving them what they need to be productive and innovative—that is, providing them with autonomy, or empowering them.
While this concept is clearly not new—Drucker and others have written about the subject since the 1950s and even earlier—its implementation nevertheless remains a challenge for many organizations today.
There are many hurdles that prevent organizations from creating a workplace culture that empowers employees, but perhaps the most formidable is a lack of understanding—of employees themselves, their current work environment, motivations, habits, and preferences, and of the benefits empowered employees can bring to an organization.
Consider the current work environment for the average employee. They are overwhelmed, overworked and over-demanded2:
- Employees are interrupted as often as every five minutes by applications and collaboration tools—the very things that are meant to increase their productivity
- They spend 41 percent of their time on activities that do not offer personal satisfaction and do not help them accomplish their work
- Only 38 percent of workers say they have opportunities for learning and development at their workplace—among those who do, they have only 1 percent of a typical workweek to do so
- The half-life of many of their professional skills is five years or less
There are many hurdles that prevent organizations from creating a workplace culture that empowers employees, but perhaps the most formidable is a lack of understanding
Now consider their motivations, habits and preferences3:
- The average employee ranks “the ability to do what they do best” as more important than a “significant increase in income,” according to Gallup’s 2017 State of the American Workplace report
- More than 70 percent of employees use search engines to learn what they need for their jobs, and many rely on their smartphones for quick answers to pressing problems
- They want to be able to find information with the ease and immediacy they have in their personal lives
- They want learning and development that’s personalized, digital and always available
With digital transformation efforts, organizations are beginning to see the link between empowerment and productivity, but they have much work to do before they can drive significant change and productivity gains.
In his California Management Review article, Drucker described six major factors that determine knowledge worker productivity. The most important, in terms of the challenges organizations are facing today, are:
- Productivity must be the responsibility of the individual knowledge workers themselves. They have to manage themselves. They must have autonomy.
- Continuing innovation must be part of the work, the task and the responsibility of knowledge workers.
- Knowledge work requires continuous learning—and continuous teaching—on the part of the knowledge worker.
- To be productive, knowledge workers must be seen and treated as assets rather than costs.
For organizations to meet these challenges, they must create a culture that encourages autonomy, acknowledges failure as part of the process, and regards continuous learning as essential. That means providing not only new tools, but also helping employees get the most out of their technology with a range of resources, including self-help guides and videos, instructor-led training, and more.
When employees become assets, empowerment, innovation and productivity are inevitable.
1. “Knowledge Worker Productivity: The Biggest Challenge,” by Peter F. Drucker, California Management Review, Vol. 41, No. 2, pp. 79-94