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Investigating knowledge workers’ productivity using work design theory

Margaret Moussa (School of Business, Western Sydney University, Rydalmere, Australia)
Mathew Bright (Department of Premier and Cabinet, New South Wales Government, Sydney, Australia)
Maria Estela Varua (School of Business, Western Sydney University, Rydalmere, Australia)

International Journal of Productivity and Performance Management

ISSN: 1741-0401

Article publication date: 10 July 2017




The purpose of this paper is to examine the suitability of job and work design theory for investigating knowledge workers’ productivity. The review is a response to recommendation and adoption of the motivational human resource management approach by a number of knowledge management researchers. The authors show that the existing literature on this topic overlooks key criticisms of HRM job and work design theory itself. The authors suggest modifications.


The paper proceeds by outlining knowledge management researchers’ arguments rejecting the application of traditional measurement approaches to investigating knowledge workers’ productivity. The review develops to examine the various arguments for adopting work design theory and considers the key contributions and critiques in this field. Drawing on the insights of key HRM work design critics, the paper concludes by offering suggestions for a model suitable for examining the drivers of knowledge work productivity in process.


The principle finding is that Morgeson and Humphrey’s (2006) Work Design Questionnaire (WDQ) stand as the most conceptually consistent and methodologically considered human resource management work design theory. However, this model must itself be modified to include a category of organizational contextual work characteristics. For application to the filed of knowledge management, WDQ must also be expanded to include knowledge sharing, role breadth self-efficacy and employee well-being as key work design mediators and outcomes.

Research limitations/implications

Greater consideration needs to be given to the distinction between knowledge sharing as a work design mediator and as a work design outcome. Morgeson and Humphrey themselves note that the “common method variance” problems arising in psychometric research have been reduced but not completely eliminated from their model.

Practical implications

Survey instruments based on the recommended model potentially provide a valuable means for understanding and enhancing productivity in a variety of knowledge intensive service industries. The pronounced benefit of this model is that it is applicable in cross-industry and cross-occupational contexts, unlike many existing knowledge worker productivity models. This is an advantage, given the centrality of the inter-connectivity of different types of activities and industries in knowledge work.

Social implications

Work design prioritizes employee motivation and support and links this to the quality of work and the well-being of clients. The benefits of well-designed knowledge work extend well beyond the generation of specific innovations and macroeconomic productivity improvements.


Job design and work design theory have been applied in the field of knowledge management. However, the applications have largely overlooked key critiques of the established models in the human resource management literature. The paper fills this gap. Its original suggestions for modifying Moregeson and Humphry’s (2006) WDQ reflect the authors’ in-depth analysis of the literature.



The authors wish to thank two anonymous reviewers for their invaluable comments.


Moussa, M., Bright, M. and Varua, M.E. (2017), "Investigating knowledge workers’ productivity using work design theory", International Journal of Productivity and Performance Management, Vol. 66 No. 6, pp. 822-834.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2017, Emerald Publishing Limited

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