On a post from a while back Andrew Gent spoke about the different types of knowledge workers: generators, brokers, consumers. And for the KM strategy to reflect these groups, rather than one-size-fits all. Peer-to Peer-tools for knowledge generators and the assumption of best practices for consumers…Andrew says:
|"The outsourcing of support is an example of the latter, where the assumption is that the knowledge pre-exists and anyone — even someone for whom English is a second language — can be taught to give the right answers. Here documenting the "right" answers is the primary focus."|
Where’s there to go next when you have squeezed all the efficiencies you can out of a process…all that’s left is to be able to sell these skill-based processes as a commodity.
Thus KM being about best practices, rather than supporting knowledge generators.
Andrew highlights the problem here:
|"But strategy does not equal reality. What happens in the field often does not match the suppositions of headquarters. And unfortunately — or fortunately, depending on your point of view — knowledge management has to deal both with goals and realities if it is to succeed […] management closest to the field demands support for what is and those at a global level demand support for what is desired."|
And then gives an example:
|"…there is a significant gap between what can be documented and what happens "on the street"…the case of Xerox technicians who were bombarded with printed information (i.e. "answers") but struggled to solve customers’ problems until they were connected through a community so they could exchange tricks of the trade learned through experience. Almost an exact replica of today’s managers pushing "best practices" to the exclusion of other KM activities."|
NOTE: Another example is the knowledge economy of the World of Warcraft.
In this black and white view KM supports strategy (and for any social content to be aligned to strategy), rather than the needs of employees…then you wonder why no-one is motivated to share anything.
Andrew warns to not fall for the lure of strategic alignment:
|"KM must stick to KM — actually managing knowledge — not falling for the lure of "strategic alignment". By laying the proper foundation of technical support for collaboration, goals and incentives for individuals, and KM policies and procedures that align with business processes rather than specific, short-term business targets…"|
I’m not going to get into "best practices" in this post, but I really like how Andrew puts KM into two camps, the new camp being about support, sense-making (also innovation and learning). This is the place where sharing happens due to enabling intrinsic motivation, and a focus on social capital…basically a distributed way for people to source help and connect with others…making the workers life more empowering, less frustrated…and more engaging.
Bas Reus ponders this:
|"It can be the manager that tries to make others only work harder instead of really making them really more responsible for what they do, or it can be the employee that feels like not having enough resources or information he or she needs, or to feel more involved."|
And speaking of emergent practices, lessons applied and the importance of context and conversation, have a read of Nancy Dixon’s post on the eradication of small pox.
Agents in the field applying what they learn daily to what needs to be contextually practiced rather than the top-down generic practice, is a great example of perpetually evolving practice. We need to be able to adapt to the complexities of our situation. If this was done today, the agents could report their experiences in the field using blog posts and comments, and the perpetually changing practice can be updated in the wiki…very agile.
The knowledge worker and routine jobs
I agree. Yes a brain surgeon may have to improvise a whole lot more, and use their head a whole lot more, and possess lots of knowledge, way more than a janitor…but this doesn’t mean the janitor is a robot.
The authors are saying something similar to the Anecdote blog post on the false dichotomy that the term knowledge worker creates:
|“We increasingly group the people in our firms into two classes: those who have knowledge and talent and, by implication, those who do not. This segmentation is misleading and damaging to firms in the long run.”|
The authors say that routine jobs still require thinking:
|"When executives focus on "knowledge workers", they lose sight of the fact that even highly routinized jobs require improvisation and the use of judgment in ambiguous situations, especially if the goal is to drive performance to new levels. Many of these improvisations require interactions with one’s fellow humans. Consider the company receptionist. When people walk in the door, or "dial 0 to reach an operator," the receptionist has to engage in a delicate and sophisticated "improvisational choreography," one in which professional competence has to come across through "interactional proficiency.""|
We are all knowledge workers…we think and improvise, use heuristics, rules of thumb, and workarounds to get things done…humans are great at self-organising themselves around exceptions to processes, and improvising where processes don’t exist.
The example of the Janitor
Even a janitor’s routine work needs some improvising, see the article Turning a Janitor into a Knowledge Worker.
This article is about micro-managing vs autonomy and leadership…giving the worker some decision-making responsibility as they know their context and local conditions best in order to make an effective and timely decision. Not only does it make for a more agile and responsive organisation, but the worker is more engaged as they have impact on how things are done…they are not just a robot.
In this fictional example the routine work of the janitor is not adapting to mess that is being generated of late due to some new work that is being carried out in different frequencies and parts of the building. The CEO tells the supervisor to cut cost costs and improve quality…the building is too dirty.
The supervisor does a clever thing and gives the janitor some decision-making responsibility…to basically give priority to dirty areas on any given day. As a result the CEO is happy because there are less complaints, and it’s due to the janitor following his own practice.
The supervisor also included the janitor in meetings with sales reps. Where the janitor communicated some issues like wax build up in corners and long waits for the floor to dry between cleaning and waxing, which the sales rep could remedy with different products.
In this story we see that top-down rules and micro-managing are just not adaptive enough, and that localised decision-making and improvisation not only improve agility, but also engagement.
The Janitor and social interactions
Barry Schwartz in his TED presentation refers to Hospital Janitors. It really is a brilliant talk.
Below are some of my transcripts, some bits are verbatim:
Janitors job duties involves no social interaction
Yet when a psychologists interviewed Janitors, they were surprised to hear these contrasting anecdotes:
- Mike stopped mopping the floor as Mr Jones was out of his bed getting exercise, building strength walking up and down the hall
- Charlene ignored supervisor orders and didn’t vacuum the visitor lounge due to family members taking a nap
- Luke washed the floor in a comatose young mans room twice because the mans father who had been keeping a vigil for 6 months didn’t see Luke do it the first time, and his father was angry
The discretion and autonomy of local decision-making of the janitors role improves the quality of patient care.
These janitors think these human interactions (kindness, care, empathy) are an essential part of the job, yet their job description does not reflect practice (reality).
These janitors have the moral will to do right by others, and moral skill to figure out what doing right means.
A wise person knows when and how to make the exception to every rule…janitors knew when to ignore their job duties in the service of others.
Janitors say is takes lots of experience to learn the human interaction part of their job. Experience and time spent with people is important, learning to improvise, try new things, occasionally fail and learn.
|"Real word problems are often ambiguous and ill defined, and the context is always changing. A wise person is like a jazz musician, using the notes on a page, but dancing around them, inventing combinations that are appropriate for the situation and the people at hand."|
I’m going to revisit this presentation on a future post about excessive rules, best practices and incentives which decrease the quality of moral skill.
Michelle Martin reviews Matthew Crawford’s book, which poses whether white collar works get to be creative and think as much as they think they do:
|"Ultimately, Crawford maintains, we are blinded by the idea that freedom to make small decisions–deciding which letter to send to a disgruntled customer or which medication to prescribe after following the decision-tree–is somehow real "thinking," when in fact these merely give us the illusion of problem-solving and independent decision-making. In reality, many knowledge workers are as bound by quotas, rules, policies and procedures as any factory worker. True creativity, innovation and problem-solving has been leeched out of many of these jobs. At best, creativity for most knowledge workers occurs on the edges."|
Mark Gould also posts about Matthew Crawford’s work, which gets into the difference between manuals and practice. The context of situations call for hunches, heuristics rather than rules.
This post was meant to be about knowledge workers, but as you can see it gets into territories such as leadership, autonomy, decision-making, engagement, best practice, context…
Mark Gould’s perspective that I’m sure we all agree with:
"Perhaps knowledge work is actually too easy for people to engage with it properly. By documenting processes in excruciating detail, organisations have simultaneously suppressed creativity and innovation, and created the conditions for inadvertent (but inevitable) error and failure."
Let’s finish off with this quote by Marshall Goldsmith that perhaps encapsulates this whole thing:
"Knowledge workers can be defined as people who know more about what they are doing than their managers do."