Where to Find 140 Million Knowledge Workers

October 12, 2017 Steve ZoBell

To successfully grow your business, you must fully leverage the talents of your organization’s workforce, while at the same time maintain high employee morale and retention. This is both the science and the art of modern resource management.

But how far can you push the science when two-thirds of organizations say that their employees are already overwhelmed?  After all, there’s only so much productivity you can squeeze out of an individual or team before burnout sets in.


To find out how email, meetings, and automation are shaping the future of work and productivity, see our 2017-2018 State of Enterprise Work Report.


If you believe your organization is part of the two-thirds with burned out employees, economic statistics show you are far from alone. We’re all feeling the pain.

The Productivity Plateau

At a national level in the US, it seems we have come to a crossroads in our quest for growth. Statistics show that for the first time since the global financial crisis, productivity growth was negative in 2016.

Even more concerning is the fact that this is part of a long-term trend. Between 1930 and 1970 productivity growth averaged 3%, whereas in more recent decades growth has slowed significantly to around 1%.

So how do we put our people back on the path of growing productivity?

More People ≠ More Productivity

The traditional way to address this issue is to add more headcount. While this increases overall manpower, it does nothing to address the core productivity and efficiency problem. In fact, this can cause already-late projects to run even later, especially in knowledge work fields.

We’re looking for a better system to manage the resources we already have.

Said another way, we want to empower folks to focus more on high-value outcomes and less on low-value activities. Organizations that can enable that focus for knowledge workers become the leaders in their markets.

These top performing companies—those that are the best at managing the time, talent, and energy of their people—have 30% to 50% higher profit margins than industry averages.

Disrupting Knowledge Work

What we need, and what the world needs, is a revolution in digital work automation through modern work management for a collaborative world. I believe we are on the cusp of such a revolution.

We see evidence of this in the advances in robotics, AI, mobile communication and collaboration, digitization, and the many other convergent trends.

McKinsey’s Global Institute has identified the “automation of knowledge work” as one of the most disruptive technology categories in terms of estimated economic impact, potentially even more disruptive than the Internet of Things.

What Knowledge Work Automation Means to You

The opportunity of automating knowledge work is enormous. McKinsey estimates the economic value to be in the range of $5 trillion to $7 trillion.

Not only that, the additional labor productivity that would result could be equivalent to 140 million additional full-time workers. That is close to doubling the current US labor force. Imagine that! Labor shortages would be wiped out as our collective productivity growth hockey-sticks up to much higher levels.

Where this really gets exciting is in contemplating the opportunities that automating knowledge work presents to your organization.

Imagine doubling the size of your team without hiring a single new individual by doubling the effect of each individual in your organization. Each person and each team would be twice as productive. As you plug each new hire into your automated work environment, you are reaping the benefits of two workers.

This is the path to re-accelerating productivity growth. This is where we find 140 million additional workers.

Where to Begin

Here are a few initiatives that should be championed in your organization in order to begin the modernization of your workforce and the automation of digital work in your environment.

  • Create Transparency: Knowledge workers are forced to string together data from across many different silos in order to get the “big picture” required to accomplish tasks. Often, the data is held behind a gate that requires a gatekeeper’s permission to enter. The modern workforce requires access to the right information at every level of the organization. Every employee, at any moment, should be able to connect their efforts and the efforts of their team to the organization’s goals, with the right supporting data just a click away. This requires investment in systems that provide real-time visibility into all projects and team efforts, and also bridges disparate data silos.
  • Enable Anytime, Anywhere Collaboration: The time has passed when all work was executed between the hours of 8:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. by employees working exclusively at office desks. Work occurs at anytime and anyplace. According to research by Gallup, the number of remote employees grew from 39% to 43% between 2012 and 2016. Not only that, remote workers are spending more time working remotely, with nearly a third working remotely four or five days a week. The rate is much higher for knowledge workers—designers, developers, or marketers—where 79% spend some time working from home. Collaboration requires specific, standardized tools and processes that allow for online and offline (asynchronous) communication, from any device, and across all teams in the enterprise. Collaboration cannot be mandated, it must be enabled and supported.
  • Practice Modern Resource Management: Advocate for work management tools that allow for planning at scale throughout your enterprise, whether it is a team manager assigning tasks to direct reports, or a resource manager assigning work to hundreds or thousands of employees across a division. Keep in mind that teams need to first understand their utilization patterns, duration timelines (time-to-complete), and other key parameters. This is because technology cannot completely mask bad process, and productive process must be differentiated from bad process. Utilizing the capabilities of digital work management tools can also protect your people from issues like burnout or uneven work distribution. The best digital work tools are those that consider present and future work allocations, realistic timelines, and provide insight into current priorities to help keep employees motivated and on-task.
  • Establish a Pattern of Automation: The modern workforce wants to work on projects that really matter. Removing less important items from your team’s plate can drive big productivity boosts by reallocating time to more valuable work.  To begin, you will need to first document how your teams work today and why they do what they do. Then you can identify the low- and minimum-value tasks that can be automated. Some you can probably identify today. These can be as straightforward as automation of email routing, meeting coordination, or digital document reviews. As success grows, your teams will seek to automate higher-value tasks and entire workflows such as coordinating the rollout of new corporate policy or managing critical compliance workflows.

While productivity is measured in units of output, the way that output is impacted is by implementing new approaches to how teams and individuals work.

Leaders need to take a step back and look beyond the sales targets by thinking critically about the type of organization they need to become in order to capitalize on future opportunities.

As the old saying goes, what got you here won’t get you there. It’s time we all take that saying seriously.


See "6 Tips to Better Resource Management" for productivity-enhancing ideas from Content Marketing World.


About the Author

Steve ZoBell

Steven is the Chief Product & Technology Officer at Workfront. He has many years of executive leadership, product development, and software engineering experience across various industries including enterprise software, healthcare IT, and games. Peanut butter with chocolate constitute Steven’s kryptonite.

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