Thursday, August 23, 2012

Knowledge Worker (Un)Productivity - A Fallout of Indian IT Industry Growth?

Peter F. Drucker – the well-known management guru, his 1999 book, ‘Management Challenges for the 21st Century’, includes the topic of ‘Knowledge Worker Productivity’ as one of the critical areas for management and organizations going into the 21st Century.

Being the visionary he was, he correctly identified this, at that time not yet mainstream, problem area as one which would challenge managers across the world.

More than a decade later, we are faced with this issue specifically in the Information Technology Industry in India.

Here are some of the dimensions of the problem:

  • A very young workforce – Gen Y and younger, comprising, and rapidly growing in, the work-stream
  • Organizations focusing on ‘outcomes’ (or at least claiming to do so!) and not worrying about the means. However, as we will see, the ability to accurately measure ‘outcomes’  is itself a gap area
  • Lack of credible ‘Measures’ itself for measuring efficiency and or productivity of knowledge workers
  • Managers not trained to ‘measure’ productivity of their team members, nor being tasked to do so
  • These managers, who are themselves very young, are not able to challenge their team members on expected productivity or outcomes. They are usually not able to measure the effort and time it should take for someone at the team members’ level for specific tasks.
  • Rapidly changing technology / services / solutions etc. do not allow teams to establish a correct measure of productivity of the task
  • Use of ‘employee cost’ as a substitute or measure for Productivity. What is usually measured is overall ‘cost’ of a function, and whether it is over or ‘under budget’. Cost is managed by getting more ‘low cost’ resources to do the knowledge tasks. Going by what is discussed above, the budget itself is not set based on standard benchmarks!
  • Rapid Growth - In many, or most, cases, the organizations have grown rapidly, too rapidly, with business having grown for many organization irrespective of flawed processes, unproductive practices, people dependency and lack of structured tools, knowledge strategies, building blocks and benchmarks. This has given no incentive for, or time for, organizations to measure or correct processes or to focus on productivity. It is only when growth is slowing, and profitability is under pressure that most IT service organizations are looking at efficiency and productivity  
  • Individuals in a hurry to ‘Grow’ beyond the current role do not get an opportunity to build their expertise in one area to actually improve their productivity – and hence they measure others, mainly their teams and new hires, on the same, flawed, productivity norms.
  • Rapid, artificial, growth forced on by organizations compounds the above. In an attempt to attract or retain good people, organizations create designations and not really more responsibility associated with more capability or experience. Compare to traditional industry, a more senior designation means more experience and higher ability to guide, point out mistakes or gaps, and improve processes or outcomes. IT services industry is in stark contrast with hoards of people growing like rising tides raising all boats, of solid oak as also leaky ones!
  • The Mediocrity Vicious Cycle’ – each individual does not reach peak productivity in their task or maturity in their managerial skills due to lack of experience. But they rapidly grow into a people / team manager - and when they become a manager or a team leader, they are not able to measure or challenge their teams on productivity. As a result the team members, even though brilliant or intelligent, do not grow to or learn to operate at peak productivity. This vicious cycle repeats every year, with these team members becoming managers with an incomplete sense of productivity!
  • Lack of long-term mentoring and coaching approach in most IT organizations; again, both mentors and mentees are young and eager to grow up and out of their roles!
  • Compare and contrast that to the mature Manufacturing Industry, with its established tools, productivity norms, continuous improvement focus.  Individuals perform in their roles for a longer duration, learning all the tricks of the trade, being mentored by seniors, and then growing into the senior roles to pass on the knowledge and contribute to productivity improvement.  Every individual is trained to focus on identifying unproductive tasks on the shop-floor, with the knowledge that every few milliseconds shaved from a process adds to profits, with thin margins this has been the constant focus.
  • IT industry has No Industry wide initiative for comparison, or sharing data with others, for similar tasks. While this might be true for software development per se, but is not there for all other tasks and processes. Even in software development, the industry sticks to old measures, while pockets of developers within the same organizations might be at higher productivity!
  • To add to this there are unclear job or role definitions, or have not been changed with the changing times, there are lack of clear set of outcomes and means or processes for the outcome from the roles. The ‘Why you are doing this task or step is usually not explained’, even the ‘how best to do this’ is left to individuals to perfect themselves. The why part is critical for individuals to improve or eliminate that step altogether
  • Missing Job Segmentation as ‘pure Knowledge’ work or ‘Knowledge + Physical’ or creative work etc. and establishing outcome norms for different tasks in these roles.
  • Another key element is the very high level of individual distractions and intrusions in today’s IT workers' lives – easy and ubiquitous access to social media on smart phones, mobile-phone calls and texts – all these constantly invade a typical employee’s working time.
  • Compare and contrast to 20th century where a phone call meant a single shared land-line in the department at the office, people would call only if really required. And any call would instantly be known to all in the office, so there were really no time waster calls, casual chats with friends, parents etc.
  • Workplace initiatives / environment implemented to ‘relax’ employees; engagement initiatives to retain employees; but there is no measurement of negative impact on productivity through time-wasters. Employees can be seen off work, whether it be lounging in the recreation area or strolling out for coffee among other cool things. Many a times forcing their colleagues to waste time along with them, who might be in the middle of a thought process, a creative streak.
  • Research has proven that a break in a creative process, usually what a knowledge worker does, leads to a disproportionate time wastage where the brain needs to trace its steps back to where it was in the middle of the process. As a result the overall time wasted is high. Remember Sherlock Holmes, when in the middle of analyzing and solving an engaging and complex intrigue, he would refuse food for days, focusing entirely on the problem and possible solutions. Similar is the story for many a leading scientists, inventors and highly creative people.
  • E-mail, official e-mail itself, is another major distractor. Every individual in an IT organization is bombarded with a high level of email traffic, transactional in nature. This is but another form of verbal chatting, on the outside individuals might seem to not be talking with others, but a constant look at emails, on their computer screens or handheld smart devices is a major distraction and time waster.
  • Several simultaneous calls on speakerphones are another annoyance. Open office spaces don’t really help here!
  • With such a high level of distractions, the overall productivity suffers dramatically!
  • One only needs to take a look outside any typical large knowledge industry office during any time of the day – and do a quick math, there are at least 50 -100 IT knowledge workers wasting time, and multiply by wasted person hours to get an idea of the scale of unproductive time
  • Not so strong individual discipline – bowing to peer pressure to collectively waste time. Practicing the famed Indian culture trait of ‘not being able to say no’ starts at home, with colleagues and friends.
  • Flexible work culture – in many organizations, the ‘come in anytime and leave anytime’ culture could lead to slackening individual discipline, leading to consequences as above on time wastage.
  • In most cases, these productivity problems are acute where both the manager and team members are very young, and the experience or age difference between manager and team is too small. Mangers don’t seem to, nor want to check their team members’ approach or discipline, or in many cases are not able to, given the small experience difference!
  • Unstructured approach and lack of Process orientation in employees – due to lack of self -awareness as also lack of formal training on individual productivity levers, time management, among others.
  • IT services organizations have also not invested in Tools and Automation for efficiency improvement for tasks – while the industry outsources development tasks for leading productivity software or SaaS IT products globally, it shirks from investing in similar tools for itself!
  • There are more, but the above kind of sum up most dimensions of the problem the industry faces with productivity.


Solutions: Many Problems, yes! So what are the solutions to the above highlighted issues? 


These are not hard to come by, with a little self-help and something that organizations can do!

For individuals, we can start with self-discipline. Minimize distractions. Refuse to take or make phone calls to friends unless urgent. Keep an email free time; or better, keep email reading time slots and switch on email for that duration only.  Keep specific, measured, time slots for breaks. Keep a time for discussions and socializing – this can be immediately after lunch when the brain is not at its best for knowledge work.  Say NO to friends and colleagues that want to go out and need company, for a smoke break or coffee break. Practice some time management techniques - Pen your daily, weekly to-do list and tick it off; plan calls and meetings with colleagues in advance. Use email tools to segregate mails – all mails not related to current and immediate task or work should be auto routed to other folders. Show your default status as busy on chat messengers; free it up only in your allocated time slot to show green! Discourage ‘walk up and chat’ tendency. You can and should take a break once in a while, and then chat with someone who is also on a break. Breakout areas in organizations are created for this very purpose. In open office spaces, don’t take calls on speakerphones and discourage others also to do so.

For organizations:  yes flexible work places and work hours are good, but see it does not impede efficiency. Managers should be strict about individuals’ office time vs. their output. Teams and departments heads should be encouraged and trained to measure individual productivity and report on dashboards for all to look up to and beat. BPO organizations do this well for task-based work; it can be replicated for knowledge / creative work! This might be counter intuitive –that creativity cannot or should not be measured; but if we don’t, we have no benchmarks and measures to improve continuously!
Keep a time fixed during the day for organization messages and email blasts – on new initiatives, internal job postings, special offers etc. – anything that is not urgent to be released immediately should be clubbed together and released at the end of the day or at lunch hour, but all these together at one fixed time in the day.

Create a team or role for establishing productivity metrics for different functions and roles, and for different personnel at different experience level within these functions. Review overall productivity norms for different departments.  Share metrics with other organizations, both for establishing appropriate metrics as also for benchmarking.

Identify candidate processes for automation and Industrialization for productivity improvement. Actively invest in these. Make these as an organization priority. Task the function heads to work with their teams that perform day to day activities to help identify time wasters, possible process accelerators, candidate tasks for automation, interfaces and workflows for automation. Set aside targets for the team itself to define the blueprint or requirements. Rapidly prototype these tools and roll out for results and adoption.

Copyright 2012 Anurag Sharma

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