Key Question for Knowledge Work: What is the Task?

In his book Management Challenges for the 21st Century, Peter Drucker asserts that the crucial question for knowledge-worker productivity, and the one most at odds with manual-worker productivity, is: What is the task? Drucker explains that one reason why this question must be asked is because knowledge work, unlike manual work, does not program the worker.

A worker on an assembly line is programmed by the arrival of a partial assembly to perform specific tasks. Since what needs to be done is obvious, the key question for manual work is: How should the work be done? With knowledge work, however, it is largely up to the knowledge worker to decide what to do. At any moment, there can be a dizzying array of distractions such as emails, phone calls, instant messages, or drop-in visits from people. Even without distractions, knowledge workers can choose to focus on value-adding work or they can attend meetings, do administrative tasks, surf the web, or do any number of different things. The work that delivers value can get lost if it is not clearly defined.

According to Drucker, work on knowledge-worker productivity begins with asking knowledge workers themselves the following questions:

  1. What is your task?
  2. What should it be?
  3. What should you be expected to contribute?
  4. What hampers you in doing your task and should be eliminated?

With the task clearly defined, steps can be taken to eliminate, or minimize to the furthest extent possible, anything that keeps knowledge workers from being able to focus on the task. Taking such action has been shown to rapidly double or triple knowledge-worker productivity.

IE Application: Work Sampling

Work sampling is a work measurement technique that uses statistics to estimate the proportion of time that people spend on specific categories of work and it is well suited to measuring work that occurs randomly, requires a variable amount of time to complete, and is distributed across a team of people. Once the task, and the barriers to the task, are defined, work sampling can be used to quantify the amount of time spent on each activity. Such information can then be used to prioritize and justify efforts to eliminate, offload, automate, restructure, or streamline work.

For manual work, work samples are often collected by an observer but since knowledge work is not directly observable, knowledge workers must be engaged in recording their own samples. Using technology, participants can be prompted to record what they are doing at random intervals over a period of time. Prompts can be delivered to a computer or to a mobile device and can arrive in the form a pop-up window with a predetermined list of activities which makes recording samples quick and easy.