Reducing tool time of knowledge workers

Knowledge workers work in “decision factories”. A good intranet should help them make better decisions.


“Companies everywhere struggle with the management of knowledge workers,” according to Roger Martin, dean of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.


One definition of a knowledge worker I came across was: “My mother doesn’t know what I do. My boss doesn’t know what I do. I don’t know what I do.” According to Martin the job of knowledge workers is “the production of decisions”.


“Their raw materials are data, either from their own information systems or from outside providers,” Martin continues. “They produce lots of memos and presentations full of analyses and recommendations. They engage in production processes—called meetings—that convert this work to finished goods in the form of decisions.”


“Decision factories have arguably become corporate America’s largest cost, even at big manufacturers like P&G, because the salaries of these factory workers far exceed those of workers in physical factories …. And as China and other low-cost jurisdictions bring more and more manual workers onstream, the developed economies will become ever more reliant on knowledge workers, whose productivity may therefore be THE management challenge of our times.”


We are on the verge of a revolution in decision factories, as we begin to focus on the productivity of the knowledge worker. One area where productivity can be greatly improved is in relation to the “tools” such workers use.


Some years ago I heard about the concept of “tool time” and “skill time”. The idea was that we should seek to reduce tool time in order to increase skill time. What is tool time? Using a search engine is an example. Navigating through a website is another. Booking a meeting room, accessing your pay details, finding people; these are all specific examples of tool time.


Skill time is about thinking up ideas, making a decision during a meeting, solving a customer’s problem. What I have noticed is that skill time is actually being reduced in many organizations. Why?


Because the tools, intranets and digital workplaces for a great many knowledge workers are terrible. They are on average about 5-7 years behind the experience of similar tools on a typical public website.


This situation is compounded by the fact that knowledge workers are increasingly expected to carry out much more tool-type tasks. Historically, tasks such as booking meeting rooms were carried out by administrators and secretaries. The tools might have been clunky but because these people were constantly using them, they found shortcuts and became more efficient. But these people have often been made redundant in a drive for efficiency.


Now, we have highly paid knowledge workers carrying out such tasks infrequently and inefficiently. Their time is a lot more expensive and they are wasting lots of it.


The solution involves a relentless focus on reducing the tool time of knowledge workers. The question should be: How do we reduce the time to book a meeting room, find people, etc.


By itself, this will not improve the quality of decisions, but it will give knowledge workers more skill time. It is the job of management to use that skill time in the best possible way.




Rethinking the Decision Factory, Roger L. Martin

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