How To Manage The Knowledge Workers On Your Team


Shellie Karabell, Contributor

October 30, 2015

There was a possibly apocryphal story raging through the halls of NBC News when I first joined the fledgling CNBC in London back in March of 1989. NBC had just fallen under the controls of Jack Welch as part of GE’s purchase of the network’s original owner, RCA, and despite a legacy of ownership by a larger industrial company, NBC News employees were not taking kindly to the changes being introduced by “Neutron Jack.”

The story (remember: possibly apocryphal but nonetheless widespread and believed) at the root of their complaints was the way in which GE supposedly calculated the value and cost of its broadcast journalists: it divided each journalist’s salary by the number of news reports produced during the year and came up with a cost-per-story, much as you might figure out the cost per unit of a widget. Or a turbine engine. Changes in compensation were made. People howled.

Measuring Widgets
The problem of course is that you cannot measure the productivity of people who are researching and writing and filming news reports using the same tools as you would to…measure the productivity of someone making widgets on an assembly line. You can give an assembly line a production target of, say, 10 widgets per day – all at a given high standard. But set a similar target for a journalist – or any “knowledge worker” who must rely on difficult-to-quantify and time-consuming factors such as research, thinking, contacts, and creativity – and you will have a lot of “cheap thrill” stories about ducks on skateboards and salacious celebrity rumors along with one or two really good news reports. I am inclined to think that the reason we see fewer “Watergate” investigations today is not because of management’s fear of sponsor revolt, but because management cannot afford the time it would take reporters to do the research, check the facts and then make sense of it all.

Whether or not this GE/NBC story is apocryphal is a bit beside the point, because the model for virtually every news outlet today is an evolution of this same theme: produce more content for less money, starting, I believe, with CNN. Ted Turner made broadcasters believe they could produce TV for nothing – using unpaid interns and re-cycled footage and canned news stories back in the 1970’s. It’s a model that’s since overtaken the industry.

The craft of news gathering and producing seems to focus today not on the mental/creative knowledge required to actually bring a perspective to the story, but on the tools of creativity which are more readily accessible than ever: iPhone video, internet distribution, photo shop, digital graphics.

Give someone a video camera and he or she becomes a cameraman. .? It doesn’t work like that.. And a true “knowledge worker” will chafe at the restraints and rebel against the pressure and leave you with much less productivity, not to mention the distinct possibility of ill-will fanning out through the company.

So how do you manage and lead a bunch of knowledge workers, be they journalists or marketing/communications professionals or app-creators or lawyers or professors or online retailers? A number of statistics indicate that, as legacy assembly line production moves increasingly into those countries where the raw materials necessary for production exist, the as much s 65% of developed world’s workforce will be knowledge workers. These are the people who make the judgment calls, lead the negotiations and come up with the ideas that can position your company ahead of the competition.

Management guru Peter Drucker first coined the term ‘knowledge worker’ in the late 1950s, when the post-war workforce was on the brink of another industrial revolution – shifting from manual labor to jobs that needed education, expertise, and experience to create and share knowledge.

Who is the Knowledge Worker?
Today’s technology demands a certain amount of knowledge-working from nearly everyone – even those whose jobs don’t require any special creativity still have to understand new software programs and technology to be able to perform even basic administrative duties. But in this case, the results are more concrete than in “knowledge work”: spread sheets to be created, reports to be filed and distributed. The knowledge workers we are talking about here are the ones who creates the report and designs the strategy behind the numbers in the first place.

Managing them is a bit like herding cats. But it can be done. Here are some ideas, based on my own experience over the post four decades, and on various bits of management research I’ve come across…

1. Create an environment in which sharing” of ideas is encouraged, but also provide space where those ideas can take shape in silence and concentration. Newsrooms, for example, are hubs of activity, topics and ideas…but people working on special assignments can sequester themselves in private spaces –or even work from home.
2. Explain where you’re going…give knowledge workers the whole big picture strategic view so they can imagine their role within it. It’s art of their personality – they want to know why things are the way they are and the freedom to suggest ideas and alternatives to make things better. This could even be one of the reasons you hired them.
3. Treat them with respect. They have expertise and training and experience – a track record and their own visions and ambitions. Maybe even more than yours. Back off.
4. Remember they are individuals. Don’t try to treat everyone in the communications department, for example, in the same way or like other employees in the company. He whole idea of generating new ideas and being creative in the first place is to come up with something different, and this takes different kinds of people.
5. Introduce different metrics. In the real world things do have to be measured, but the metrics used for knowledge workers need to be different from those used for widget-makers. Maybe progress is measured every six months instead of every quarter? Maybe “success” is defined by the ability to extrapolate from a basic idea into a campaign with a high conversion rate? Leaders and managers themselves need to be a bit creative in this regard.
6. Make sure knowledge workers are trained on your company’s requisite software and operating systems….and are using them. There needs to be some basic level of standardization, measurement and cost control over knowledge workers or your admin will suffer needlessly. When Capital Cities Broadcasting bought the ABC TV network back in 1985 they sent an accountant to each and every news editorial meeting (3 a day). The accountant sat silently taking notes. The objective was to avoid any last-minute “surprises” or nip enormous costs in the bud– such as bills for private jets to overfly Libya and keep an eye on Moammar Khadaffy. To be fair, a lot of unnecessary first-class air travel got cancelled as well.

The Internet of Things. has made all of us in one way or another, “knowledge workers.” But while these new technological tools are necessary, they do not necessarily make us more creative. The music, after all, is not in the violin.

This article was written by Shellie Karabell from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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