Drucker on Knowledge Workers

Peter Drucker has been the seminal person in identifying the most important trends that will have the biggest impact on the world. From creating the field of management to drilling home the importance of business tools for the social sector and to identifying that the biggest challenge for the 21st century is the productivity of the knowledge worker.

The one thing that was not clear from Drucker’s writing was how to do it. I think that the whole Agile/Scrum methodology is geared towards knowledge workers (yes, software developers are another kind of knowledge workers) and the Radical management stuff promoted by Steve Denning with a focus on client delight fits very well.

So what does Drucker actually say?

Drucker (1999, p142) describes six major factors determining knowledge worker productivity.

1. “Knowledge worker productivity demands that we ask the question: “What is the task?”

2. It demands that we impose the responsibility for their productivity on the individual knowledge workers themselves. Knowledge workers have to manage themselves. They have to have autonomy.

3. Continuing innovation has to be part of the work, the task and the responsibility of knowledge workers.

4. Knowledge work requires continuous learning on the part of the knowledge worker, but equally continuous teaching on the part of the knowledge worker.

5. Productivity of the knowledge worker is not – at least not primarily – a matter of the quantity of output. Quality is at least as important.

6. Finally, knowledge worker productivity requires that the knowledge worker is both seen and treated as an ‘asset’ rather than a ‘cost’. It requires that knowledge workers want to work for the organization in preference to all other opportunities.”

And each of these aspects are covered through the agile methodology. What is the task? That is exactly what is suggested is clarified at the start of each iteration through user stories etc from the client. Drucker talks about autonomy and this is what is achieved through the use of self-organising teams which decide what they can do in a iteration and how they want to do it. The self-organising team along with sprint planning and retrospectives create the right environment for reflection and continuous innovation.

The absolute need for running a self-organising team is to realise the importance of these individuals and their brain power and that it is the biggest asset of the organisation. How we tap into that will be the key. Focussing the whole aspect of creation on client delight at every iteration makes sure that quality is the name of the game.

In a nutshell,

The principles of Radical Managementsm are: 

– A shift in goal from making money for shareholders to delighting customers through continuous innovation. 
– A shift in the role of managers from controlling individuals to enabling self-organizing teams. 
– A shift in the way work is coordinated from bureaucracy to dynamic linking. 
– A shift in values from a preoccupation with efficiency to a broader set of values that will foster continuous innovation. 
– A shift in communications from top-down commands to horizontal communications.


Ofcourse, as a Knowledge worker it is each and everybody’s responsibility to keep learning and growing. And here is where Drucker believes that teaching is the best way to learn something.

Drucker also adds that “…to be successful, the knowledge work must be focused as part of a system, on the needs of the customer and business strategy.” This is clearly achieved through the focus of the ScrumMaster and Product Owner on the needs that satisfy the client the most. This is the pull aspect of work rather than push from a lean thinking point of view.

The stuff on aligning for business strategy is a much larger point and is the role of senior management to make sure that all projects are aligned with the larger business strategy.

Drucker points out “that many knowledge workers have many activities beyond their core task which take up their time and remove their concentration, thereby impacting productivity. He strongly advocates concentration of effort, with other tasks minimised or delegated.” This has been clearly suggested in various ways in the agile literature through the use of Kanban techniques or the need for no interference in a sprint etc.

Working at Families SA I have realised that social work, residential work, psychologists etc are nothing but knowledge work. It is absolutely the same regarding TACSI. I have never seen this work being identified as such. Once we do that then it becomes clear what the next step is. It is to start creating the management structures, incentives and work environment that is suitable for knowledge workers.

What is quite fascinating for me is the clear alignment of the agile methodology along with the explanations of Steve Denning and their answer to Drucker’s questions. This is exciting.

Drucker puts a lot of responsibility on the knowledge worker to manage his time, to learn continuously, to learn how to work in a team and to determine what makes them tick. It is a lot of responsibility and Drucker has some great answers for that. That will be a another post.


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