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Thinking for a Living - Book Review

1 July 2009

Dr. Moria Levy

Like all of Prof. Tom Davenport's books I've explored in knowledge management and business intelligence, "Thinking for a Living" unquestionably exhibits depth. It is a meticulously researched book, showcasing profound understanding and leaving readers with ample food for thought and actionable insights. Penned in 2005, it delves into the realm of knowledge workers, elucidating ways to optimize their work for enhanced organizational performance. Reflecting on Peter Drucker's 1999 work, "Management Challenges for the 21st Century," a fundamental tenet emphasized by the eminent management guru was that the efficiency of knowledge workers is pivotal for success in the 21st century. This aligns precisely with the central theme of Davenport's book – equipping readers with tools to comprehend knowledge workers and elevate their efficiency.


The book meticulously addresses five distinct facets that influence the efficiency of knowledge workers. These encompass:

  • The identity and unique characteristics of knowledge workers

  • Strategies for Performance Enhancement

  • Workflow dynamics

  • The role of supporting computing technologies

  • Individual skill development

  • The impact of the physical work environment

  • Effective management practices


The extent to which we can streamline the work of knowledge workers remains somewhat enigmatic. Nevertheless, those who embrace the methods and techniques outlined in this book are likely to be better positioned for success—a recommended read.


The identity and unique characteristics of knowledge workers

The contemporary workforce predominantly comprises knowledge workers whose livelihood hinges on thinking. Many managers today oversee knowledge workers, with studies indicating that 25-50% of workers fall into this category. Recognizing the organizational significance of these employees is crucial, as they play a pivotal role in fostering innovation and driving growth within any organization. Knowledge workers are at the forefront of developing new products and formulating strategic initiatives. Their increasing numbers underscore their growing importance in the economy, and knowledge-intensive organizations, where most employees fall into this category, exhibit the highest growth and success rates in the United States.


Distinct fields that house a significant number of knowledge workers include:

  • Management

  • Architecture

  • Law

  • Business

  • Engineering

  • Health

  • Finance

  • Life Sciences

  • Community

  • Computing

  • Social Sciences

  • Education

  • Mathematics

  • Science

  • Guidance


Definition: Knowledge workers are employees with a high level of specialization, studies, and experience, primarily engaged in developing, disseminating, or applying knowledge.

Note: Many employees who do not strictly fit the definition of knowledge workers may still dedicate a portion of their job to knowledge work.


Characteristics of knowledge workers:

  • Value independence; prefer autonomy in deciding how to accomplish tasks.

  • Defining the work process is challenging but holds significant value, making process streamlining complex.

  • Learning from observation is effective in understanding their roles.

  • Act with purpose, with well-founded reasons for their actions.

  • Their commitment to the job and organization significantly influences their performance.

  • Appreciate their knowledge and may not always readily share it.


It is essential not to view knowledge workers as a monolithic group. Different roles within this category exhibit variations, and segmentation can be carried out based on various axes to determine where to invest in efficiency. These axes include, but are not limited to:

  1. Dependence/collaboration in knowledge work (individuals or groups).

  2. The complexity of work and required knowledge, integrating knowledge into work processes.

  3. Knowledge activity involves the development, dissemination, or use of knowledge.

  4. Scope of the ideas they generate and their impact (significant ideas or local developments).

  5. Criticality of the role.

  6. Work mobility.


Strategies for Performance Enhancement

Is it worthwhile to attempt intervention to optimize and enhance the performance of knowledge workers? The answer is complex. On one hand, knowledge workers value their independence and oppose external interference in their tasks. Each approaches their job uniquely, and it's challenging for outsiders to possess superior insights into effectively executing their responsibilities. On the other hand, if we refrain from taking action, achieving meaningful change becomes an improbable goal.


Workflow dynamics

Defining organized work processes for knowledge workers proves more challenging than categorizing employees as knowledge workers. As previously mentioned, the approach of knowledge workers varies individually, and the imposition of defined processes may be perceived as unnecessary bureaucracy. Collaborative efforts among knowledge workers can be achieved through unified work processes when they actively participate in the definition process. However, the effectiveness of this recommendation could be improved due to the inherent constraint of the number of people involved.


Recommendations considering subpopulations of knowledge workers:

  1. Permanent transaction workers (e.g., service representatives): Integrate flow processes/defined processes within a supportive operational computer system.

  2. Integration workers (e.g., salespeople): Provide a document repository facilitating streamlined work for knowledge workers.

  3. Expert workers (e.g., researchers): Provide a database of templates, exemplary instances, and super-level guidelines.

  4. Sharing employees: Implement result measurement and create a sense of urgency to streamline task execution.


Recommendations focusing on various knowledge activities:

  1. Knowledge development:

    a. Divide the development process into sub-processes with defined topics at each stage.

    b. Evaluate process results.

    c. Quality assessment based on environmental feedback. For example, assess researchers based on the citation frequency of their research.

    d. Define a form accompanying the process that is gradually completed during the procedure.

  2. Sharing/dissemination of knowledge:

    a. Manage the context in which knowledge is shared rather than the process itself.

    b. Measure inputs and outputs, with the process itself remaining unmeasured.

  3. Use and application of knowledge:

    a. Measure the primary factors influencing use/implementation:

    i. Leadership.

    ii. Visibility and accessibility of knowledge to those who need it.

    iii. Control of emerging knowledge assets.


Additional recommendations:

  • Divide each process into sub-processes and ensure their execution.

  • Recognize the importance of using experience alongside orderly processes, employing methods such as assistance from experienced individuals in defining the process, integrating observations, conducting interviews with employees to understand the rationale behind specific procedures, and validating their impact.

  • Adopt a gradual, continuous, and participatory change approach.

  • Utilize kits instead of instructions, including examples, forms, templates, etc., while allowing employees to determine the process and implementation method.

  • Embrace solutions like CMM, assessing the organization on five levels to enhance performance progressively.


The role of supporting computing technologies

Numerous computing technologies can be integrated into the activities of knowledge workers. It is crucial to note that not all technologies lead to improvement and efficiency. Even those that aid in the process may not suit every need and situation. The book emphasizes general technologies applicable to a broad user base rather than focusing on solutions for specific individuals.


Furthermore, it is essential to acknowledge that realizing all dreams woven in the technological field, such as complete access to organizational or business data for making decisions and the organizational ability to capture and share all information and knowledge, is not feasible.

The types of technologies outlined in the book provide partial solutions at different levels to streamline the activities of knowledge workers, including decision support systems, business intelligence systems, knowledge management systems, integration of knowledge into operational systems, professional portals/websites, automatic and semi-automatic decision systems, and blogs and WEB2.0 tools for collaboration. Specific systems for designated populations include knowledge managers for service centers and electronic laboratories for pharmaceutical organizations.


Additional recommendations include:

  • Focusing knowledge to counter the flood of data, information, and knowledge.

  • Recognizing that success depends on managerial aspects accompanying supporting information systems, such as creating motivation for system use, maintaining a reliable and up-to-date information base, prioritizing processes and knowledge for database establishment, allowing employees the final decision on knowledge utilization, fostering a culture of improvement and measurement, and providing relevant knowledge in the systems with support from information systems personnel.


Individual skill development

Generalizing and defining uniform skills required for every knowledgeable employee, given their designated roles, is challenging. Nevertheless, there are several skills commonly used by all knowledge workers:

  1. Reading: Some employees deal with large amounts of texts and emails.

  2. Processing information received by phone, email, or meetings in daily work.

  3. Writing

  4. Attending meetings

  5. Use of personal computing tools (Instant Messaging, Mail, SMS) and organizational computing tools (details in the previous section).

  6. Managing personal information stored on the computer and in the room; dealing with information overflow; handling push and the need for information pull.

  7. Time Management


Based on three studies conducted in the field, this chapter presents tools for addressing one of the main problems – managing personal information.

Tools proposed by study participants for managing personal information include:

  • Ignoring gadgets.

  • Limiting the number of channels for receiving/transmitting information.

  • Putting effort into organizing personal information.

  • Avoiding missionary behavior – offering help to those who evacuate but not convincing others, recognizing that everyone has their own methods.

  • Seeking help when needed.

  • Incorporating the use of electronic information and printed papers.

  • Investing more in organizing more critical information.

  • Using lists as an administrative tool.

  • Adapting different tools and approaches based on the working situation at a given time, as there is no universally applicable solution.


Findings from studies on traits/behaviors of knowledge workers with improved performance include:

  • Being deliberate, flexible, and active learners.

  • Building solid relationships with a few colleagues (considered connected), maintaining weaker bridges compared to other workers, and connecting with new people in the network.

  • Demonstrating awareness of others with expertise.

  • Investing in connections and relationships.

  • Investing in learning new and innovative topics and continuously deepening experience through ongoing education.


The impact of the physical work environment

Organizations have debated whether the physical work environment impacts employee performance for years. Some organizations have made significant investments in this area, but there are few conclusive findings regarding the level and nature of the impact.


However, several observations can be made about the relationship between the physical work environment and knowledge worker performance:

  • Knowledge workers generally prefer closed offices.

  • Knowledge workers tend to congregate in specific geographical areas.

  • Flexibility and mobility are essential for knowledge workers.

  • Knowledge workers value collaboration and sharing.

  • Concentration is crucial for knowledge workers.

  • Knowledge workers predominantly work from the office rather than from home.

  • Proximity influences the connections among knowledge workers.

  • Extravagant office amenities are of less importance to knowledge workers.

Therefore, the strategy for collaboration among knowledge workers and its implementation should involve coordination between IT personnel, human resources, and those responsible for the physical infrastructure. Decisions about the physical work environment should be differentiated and adapted to the group's nature and role. In places with partial or complete segmentation (mobility, teamwork, parallel projects, and required connectivity), it is recommended to create corresponding alternatives. Another crucial decision for every organization is whether employees participate in the choice (through budget allocation or choosing among several options) or if the organization unilaterally determines the work environment.


Effective management practices

Management methods from the twentieth century and the corresponding models are no longer applicable. Surprisingly, no suitable alternative exists for new management methods specifically designed for knowledge workers.


Here are examples of required conceptual changes in management:

  • Previously, management and working were separate roles. Today, managers actively engage in both management and collaborative work.

  • It was assumed that employees' work processes were observable in the past, but this notion has been abandoned.

  • Formerly, employees were seen as self-centered, solely aiming to maximize personal success. Today, we acknowledge that employees also possess an organizational vision.

  • Past practices involved managers transmitting knowledge to and from employees; however, contemporary communication channels cut across hierarchies.

  • While employees' work processes were previously streamlined, managers' processes were often neglected. Today, both can be equally optimized.

  • The belief that managers can perform employees' tasks proficiently was prevalent in the past, but it is no longer accurate.

  • Previously, managers were primarily responsible for thinking, while employees focused on execution. Today, both thinking and doing are integral to all roles.


The line between managers and employees has blurred in the current era of managing knowledge workers. Managers should consider the following:

  1. Direct involvement in actual work.

  2. Community organization.

  3. Employee recruitment and retention, emphasizing communication and study skills in candidates.

  4. Developing knowledge skills for employees.

  5. Evaluating implicit knowledge performance.

  6. Cultivating a knowledge-friendly culture.

  7. Reducing organizational bureaucracy and promoting cross-organizational communication.

  8. Relying on internal and external knowledge sources.

  9. Investing in continuous learning for both individuals and the organization.

  10. Aligning projects with the organizational-business direction.

  11. Promoting group decisions and good intentions.

  12. Constantly streamlining knowledge workers' activities and seeking ways to enhance their performance.


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