Like vinyl records and Volkswagen Beetles, sustainable competitive advantages are back in style—or will be as companies turn their attention to making their most talented, highly paid workers more productive. For the past 30 years, companies have boosted their labor productivity by reengineering, automating, or outsourcing production and clerical jobs. But any advantage in costs or distinctiveness that companies gained in this way was usually short lived, for their rivals adopted similar technologies and process improvements and thus quickly matched the leaders.

But advantages that companies gain by raising the productivity of their most valuable workers may well be more enduring, for their rivals will find these improvements much harder to copy. This kind of work is undertaken by, for example, managers, salespeople, and customer service reps, whose tasks are anything but routine. Such employees interact with other employees, customers, and suppliers and make complex decisions based on knowledge, judgment, experience, and instinct.

New McKinsey research reveals that these high-value decision makers are growing in number and importance throughout many companies. As businesses come to have more problem solvers and fewer doers in their ranks, the way they organize for business changes. So does the economics of labor: workers who undertake complex, interactive jobs typically command higher salaries, and their actions have a disproportionate impact on the ability of companies to woo customers, to compete, and to earn profits. Thus, the potential gains to be realized by making these employees more effective at what they do and by helping them to do it more cost effectively are huge—as is the downside of ignoring this trend.

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