Technology marketers target them. Human resources departments recruit them. Management consultants write and talk about them. And too often, organizations segregate them.
Knowledge workers, that is.
Management guru Peter Drucker coined the term "knowledge worker." In his 1969 book, The Age of Discontinuity, Drucker differentiates knowledge workers from manual workers and insists that new industries will employ mostly knowledge workers. Drucker was clearly prescient about the expanding role of knowledge in an information-based economy.
Fast-forward 42 years. The terms "knowledge worker" and "manual worker" are no longer mutually exclusive. People loading product onto rail cars certainly work with their hands, but they may also contribute knowledge to the business. Dow Chemical (DOW) realizes this, and that's why it shares day sales and inventory numbers with everybody in the company, including the workers doing the heavy lifting on the front lines. Dow recognizes that if people understand how their actions contribute or detract from business results, they will do a better job.
Muzzling the Front Line
Command-and-control cultures segment their workforces into knowledge workers and everybody else. They pay knowledge workers to think and pay everybody else to carry out orders. In these cultures, collaboration is dead on arrival, because the organization effectively muzzles front-line workers who know how the business operates. In command-and-control companies, value creation suffers because management makes decisions in a vacuum without broad input.
In a collaborative organization, on the other hand, all workers' knowledge counts, regardless of their roles. Every team member contributes, shares knowledge, and participates in making decisions, whether he or she is loading crates, designing products, servicing customer accounts, creating tactical marketing plans, or determining long-term strategy. And most important, information flows in multiple directions rather than cascading from senior leadership down through multiple levels of management to front-line people.
A bank in Britain has told a leading software vendor (I won't name the bank or the software provider, because the latter shared the story with me in confidence) it wishes to stifle communication and collaboration among all but a small, elite group of employees. The bank blocks Internet access and restricts functionality of tools. The reason: The bank considers only 5 percent of employees information workers. These are the people who develop marketing campaigns, produce products, create strategy, and supposedly think for a living. Management considers them the only team members whose opinions count. The bank considers the other 95 percent of people "costs to be optimized."
In other words, the bank pays a few people think. It pays everybody else to follow orders.
Produce, Don't Think
The bank believes that if the wrong people think, they will produce less. And doesn't it have a point? Tellers should process deposits and loan payments rather than think about how to make products better. Banks have marketing and strategy people at headquarters to develop services.
If tellers collaborate with people in other functions, they will accomplish less. For many positions, companies just need people to do what they're told. Right?
That's the old command-and-control approach. And if this type of approach is not a disincentive to collaboration, I don't know what is. In reality, everybody today qualifies as a knowledge worker. Every worker has knowledge and information that the organization can tap to find out: Why is a particular product underperforming in one market? What action can we take to fix the problem quickly? If we take these actions, can we handle an increased production schedule? What's the impact on cash flow if we make these changes?
Any employee might have information and input that can help the organization develop better products and services, manage real business performance, bridge strategy and execution, make better and faster decisions, and increase profit.
Here are five steps your organization can take to desegregate the workforce:
1. Institute information democracy. Give everybody access to the same data and information. While you may need to restrict access to highly sensitive information, such as HR records and product formulas, adopt policies that favor information democracy over denied access. Information democracy encourages sharing over hoarding and sparks collaboration across functions and business units.
2. Break down barriers among levels. Give everybody access to everybody else within the organization. If a worker on the factory floor needs to engage a senior vice-president, the organization encourages that interaction. If a business unit leader needs real-time information from a specific sales territory, that leader can directly engage a salesperson, without cultural fallout.
3. Use information technology to enable spontaneous collaboration. Adopt unified communications and enable one-click access from corporate directories, business productivity applications, and specialized applications so that every team member has immediate access to everybody else. Team members can then launch an instant messaging session and escalate that interaction to a voice call, Web conference, or videoconference. So everybody knows who all the players are regardless of their location—and they gain the ability to engage them.
4. Involve front-line people in decisions. Pay everybody to think. When people contribute to decisions, they have a stake in those decisions. And it works both ways. Often senior leaders are inhibited from engaging people on the front lines even though they need a front-line person's knowledge in real time to make the right decision. His or her position may be three levels below that of the people making the decision. And there's no time to go through channels. The executives never hear the front-line expert's voice, and the decision suffers.
5. Recognize and reward broad input. Put the organization's money where its mouth is by tying raises and promotions to gaining broad input. Include a module in performance evaluations to gauge whether managers are making decisions in a vacuum or in concert with people across functions and levels. Recognize leaders who tap the knowledge of front-line people and reward leaders for including input from across the organization in making decisions.