Kelman: Thinking for a living

Recruiting and retaining good knowledge workers is a challenge in a bureaucratic world

Thomas Davenport is one of the most interesting “pracademics” — people who have one foot in academia and the other in consulting — writing about management today. His latest book, “Thinking for a Living,” is about how to get better performance and results from knowledge workers. It is relevant to the government in general and information technology in particular, because those are areas in which good management of knowledge work is central to success. Although virtually all of Davenport’s examples, problems and issues come from business, they are applicable in a government context.

Managing knowledge workers is challenging. Compared with producing widgets or moving files, such work is seldom observable and often hard to measure. The approach to managing knowledge workers has been what Davenport calls HSPALTA: “Hire smart people and leave them alone.” He argues that, as such work increases in importance and signs of productivity problems arise, we need to do better.

Much of the book discusses how to make knowledge work more productive. Davenport doesn’t believe such work can generally be standardized in the same ways possible in manufacturing, but he notes that organizations should look for components that are ripe for greater systematization. Furthermore, the managerial and cultural contexts surrounding processes that cannot be standardized could be better specified. For example, software development should rely on small teams with rapid outputs and frequent testing.

As for performance, the best measure of knowledge work’s quality, particularly at the team level, might be evaluation by outside peers, analogous to the peer review process used for individual research and promotion decisions in academia.

Davenport also suggests paying more attention to developing generic knowledge-worker skills, such as how to make meetings more productive or manage personal information flow, including e-mail messages. A good deal of information on the best ways to manage meetings is available for agencies wishing to take this issue seriously, while personal information management is a nascent area of study that agencies would do well to study.

Although Davenport thinks we can do better than HSPALTA, he devotes a fair amount of the book to discuss how to hire and retain good people in a world in which knowledge workers are in great demand.

He makes a number of suggestions about how to conduct job interviews. If you need people who can collaborate well, ask about a critical problem the candidate has solved and look for evidence of collaboration in solving it. Look for people who have taken the trouble to learn about your organization, because if they’re not curious enough to seek out knowledge for a job interview, how intellectually curious are they likely to be once employed?

At a strategic level, Davenport notes that “most knowledge workers have a justifiable antipathy toward bureaucracy. They would like to be able to do their work without excessive rules, policies or formal processes.” Indeed, he sees unblocking the bureaucracy as part of a manager’s job vis-à-vis frontline knowledge workers. Sadly, this is something Congress and inspectors general ignore when they impose excessive “control” and “oversight” on agencies.

Recruiting and retaining good knowledge workers is hard enough without the self-inflicted wounds of the government’s runaway bureaucracy.

Kelman is a professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. He can be reached at steve_kelman@harvard.edu.

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