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If You Think IT Can Ignore Knowledge Workers, Think Again

We are all knowledge workers now

We are all knowledge workers now

This year, we are discussing findings from The Future of Corporate IT 2013-2017 in our CIO meeting series. We argue that the way work gets done has changed radically, and that this creates new opportunities for IT to drive employee productivity. Two changes in the work environment are particularly important – greater interdependence and greater knowledge intensity. At a recent meeting, we had a lively debate about how far these changes extend.

Today, IT tends to treat “knowledge workers” as a small and specialized group whose needs for analytics and collaboration tools stand out from the majority. But in the new work environment, almost everyone’s job involves collaboration and knowledge work. It’s not just employees with desk jobs who need to use data and work together; the same applies to employees on the factory floor or at the frontline with customers.

Almost Everyone is a Knowledge Worker

A recent CEB survey found that 82% of employees undertake at least some knowledge work such as collecting and analyzing data, or applying judgment to data to make a decision. Even in highly transactional roles the majority of employees are now knowledge workers, for example, 72% in manufacturing, 67% in sales, and 62% in customer service.

Work Is More Interdependent

Ten year ago, only 20% of an employee’s contribution to business performance came from network performance – their ability to help others and be helped by others. Now that figure is 49%. This too extends beyond desk-bound employees. Network performance is equally important in manufacturing, retail, and in call centers.

Example: The Collaborative, Judgment-Driven Contact Center

A good example comes from my colleagues at CEB Customer Contact Leadership Council. They found that to support for increasingly complex products while meeting customer expectations for personalized service, contact center reps have to use judgment to assess data and make decisions. The best way to develop judgment in contact center staff is to foster collaboration and peer support. Contact center reps who work together and support each other are more likely to make the right decisions and provide good customer service.

Tools Are Only (a Small) Part of the Answer

Companies need to invest more in analytics and collaboration to support knowledge work and interdependence. But these tools alone won’t drive better performance. Despite the importance of knowledge work and network performance, 62% of employees don’t have the skills and judgment to use data effectively for decision making, and 80% are ineffective at collaboration. This means that someone must provide coaching and support to bolster these skills. But should that “someone” be IT?

While no function can solve the problem alone, we think that IT must play a role. Unless employees’ skills are improved, much of the money spent on collaboration and BI tools will be wasted. IT already devotes substantial sums to training employees on new functionality and providing support when something breaks, so progressive companies are refocusing this support on coaching employees on how to apply the technologies to their day-to-day work.

We are also seeing IT teams pay more attention to the readiness of employees to use new capabilities effectively. This can be done by shadowing employees to better understand their workflows and skills, or by using frameworks to assess their abilities. For example, assessing individual teams to identify behaviors and skills gaps that might undermine effective collaboration.

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