Measuring and Managing Productivity in the Age of Knowledge

Productivity, and the act of measuring it, is extremely important to companies of all types and sizes. As technology has changed both the definition of "work" and where that work is carried out, however, we lack a clear and current definition of productivity. Adding to the confusion is that after four years of cost-cutting, excess fat has been trimmed to the bone and employees are being asked to do more than ever before.


As a nation, America has prided itself in leading the way to continually increase measures of productivity versus other competitive industrial nations. But the shift away from manufacturing toward services and knowledge workers makes it more difficult to both define and measure productivity. Creating X number of widgets per hour now gives way to the number of lines of code, the number of claims reviewed and the creation of data spreadsheets.


Thus, most enterprises lack the ability to definitively say how productive their knowledge workers are at any given time. Managing productivity is left to safeguards on preventing employees from wasting work time, such as website blocking software. But recent studies show that the proliferation of smartphones means that an employee bent on wasting time will simply go around attempts to block his or her access to sites on the Internet by using their personal smartphones. A 2011 study by Cisco found that 56 percent of college students who responded to the survey said they would either not accept a job offer from a company that blocked access to social media in the workplace, or would join and attempt to sidestep the company policies. 


HR departments worried about time wasted on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter face a real dilemma. According to a Kelly Services survey in June of 2012, 30 percent globally believe it is acceptable to use social media for personal use while at work. Even worse, 43 percent agree that it impacts adversely on productivity. However, some employees also claim that social media can help improve their work through collaboration, research and real-time data. Blocking access, thus, seems like a heavy-handed solution to a problem that requires more finesse.


Add to that the growth of remote workers and reliance on independent contractors, who may work offsite, and the fears of a human resource team are compounded. Company employees who work from home at least one day a month hit 22.8 million in mid-2011, according to IDC. Fueling the fears of HR are studies like that from Citrix in June of 2012, which found that out of those working from home, 43 percent watch TV or a movie, 20 percent play video games, 24 percent admit to having a drink and 26 percent say they take naps. 


With all these elements accounted for, here are four ways companies can begin to create a formal and sustainable strategy around productivity for knowledge workers.


Know What to Measure


Without measurement, there is no ability to identify areas that need improvement. But first it is important to define what is exactly being measured. Avoid a one-size-fits-all approach that treats each department the same. After all, a sales team may not need to be measured on productivity when their ability to hit sales goals will clearly say whether or not they are doing their job. Again, these recommendations apply to knowledge workers who spend much of their jobs using computers. 


Productivity also has different meanings to different companies. For some it may be as simple as the absence of wasting work time, thus, ensuring that an employee's focus is on their duties. For others it may be their keystrokes per minute. Others might be how often an employee is using certain applications such as spreadsheets, ERP applications or design software. There are productivity measurement tools that can help track each user's time with an application, keystrokes, websites visited or inactive time. Whichever tool you deploy, make sure to align your criteria for measurement with the data that is actually being gathered.


Set Clear Milestones


Armed with the knowledge of what you are measuring, equally important is setting clear milestones as targets for each relevant employee. Only by defining what is expected of them can they then work toward achieving productivity goals. With a benchmark established, higher targets can be set for part-time remote workers. For example, what percentage of time they were Active versus Inactive? Companies can even offer an incentive, which allows workers another day of remote work, should they achieve the higher target. Through this leapfrogging method of measuring, setting a milestone then measuring again, a higher Active time can be achieved. 


This is a win-win situation. The company benefits from a highly motivated and productive employee. The employee gains by being allowed to work from home, which can save them commuting costs and time. In other words, rather than using tools as a "stick" to dissuade bad behavior, also use it as a "carrot" to incentivize desirable behavior.


Provide Transparency


No one likes the feeling of being monitored and measured. Pre-empt employee complaints by clearly laying out why measurement is being implemented, what is going to be measured, and what benefits (if any) will be offered should certain milestones be reached. In fact, empowering employees to access the measurement tool themselves provides a powerful way to self-monitor and self-correct as needed. Also important is communicating what privacy options an employee has. While most workers realize that anything done on a computer on behalf of their employer means their right to privacy is limited, it still behooves the employer to provide measures of privacy where appropriate.


Wash, Rinse, Repeat


With the above simple steps, a company now has in place a powerful self-sustaining cycle. What is being measured is defined and communicated. Goals are set. Employees are empowered. Productivity and morale are, thus, increased. Remember to remain flexible and make adjustments as needed. Seek feedback from employees and actively work to integrate their suggestions into the process. Measuring and improving productivity of knowledge workers can be achieved with the inherent flexibility needed for companies of the future.


About the Author: Edward M. Kwang is President of MySammy, a productivity measurement solution. MySammy is a cloud-based software solution that enables employers and managers to graphically view detailed information on how an employee's time is spent on a computer.  The solution provides quantifiable time accountability measurement and collects only the data needed for effective management evaluation of "productive time" and avoids depriving users of their privacy.  For more information about the company check out