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Spreading ideas across an organization

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Few senior executives know how to enhance the productivity of knowledge workers. The reason? Knowledge workers rarely involve clear-cut tasks or measurable performance metrics.

As a result, companies settle for scattershot investments in IT and training, without knowing whether they make people more effective.

McKinsey researchers found five types of common productivity barriers that slow down knowledge workers: physical, technical, social or cultural, contextual, and temporal.

Take contextual barriers. That’s the disconnect that happens between, say, a sales department and a product-development team.

To overcome a contextual barrier, organizations can create forums for specialists from different areas to learn about one another’s work. Examples:

1. NASA holds a biannual “Masters Forum.” About 50 employees from different parts of the agency attend the meetings to hear other NASA colleagues talk about the tools, methods and skills they use in extremely complex projects. The sessions are lightly moderated and very interactive.

2. At Ecopetrol, a Colombian gas and oil company, technical forums break down the natural barriers between occupations and build trust, encouraging employees to share information freely.

— Adapted from “Boosting the productivity of knowledge workers,” Eric Matson, McKinsey Quarterly.

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