How to Manage Smart People

A confession: I am a knowledge worker. That means, according to Babson College professor Thomas Davenport, whom we interview in this issue, that I “create, package, distribute and apply knowledge.”

That puts me among a growing army of workers Davenport estimates is already between a quarter and a third of the U.S. workforce.

Like most knowledge workers, I’m given a lot of leeway in how I do my job. I’m not on a clock, nobody is counting keystrokes (I think) as I write and edit stories and send e-mails to other writers or sources, and my performance is judged primarily through admittedly subjective criteria. That also goes for how I manage the people who work for me.

The essential question Davenport raises is one that’s near and dear to the hearts of anyone who, like me, is both a knowledge worker and a manager of knowledge workers: Can the performance of knowledge workers be improved by more carefully managing them, more consistently and objectively measuring their performance, and more intelligently using technology to help them do their jobs? Davenport says yes, while admitting the lack of evidence to support his thesis. But I have reservations.

The problem is with the nature of knowledge work. As Davenport points out, how do you control processes, 90 percent of which take place in someone’s head?

It’s much easier to manage and reengineer physical processes than mental processes. Add to that the fact that every knowledge worker, like all workers, goes about his or her work differently, and no amount of process management would seem to be able to take all those differences into account.

But that doesn’t mean knowledge workers can’t be managed at all. In a column in the April 2003 issue of CIO Insight, John Parkinson discussed the problem of Power Programmers, or 10x programmers—called that because their performance was an order of magnitude better than the average. Everyone knows knowledge workers like that—super-capable and, well, just better at what they do. But Parkinson pointed out an even more important aspect of such workers: “My best managers know how to get the most out of their Power Programmers, without overtaxing the less talented people. Project managers who went strictly by the book never got the same level of performance—and usually lost their Power Programmers pretty fast.”

Given the nature of knowledge work, managing knowledge workers is bound to be a delicate operation. Have you had success in systematically improving their performance? We’d like to hear your story. Please write us at

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