information is the primary basis of value in knowledge work, and it must flow to the right person in the right form at the right time at the lowest cost with the highest quality possible. – Matthew May
I’ve been thinking about the challenges we have as individuals and as managers in organisations when it comes to knowledge work.
Work based on knowledge has really only been a thing for a few decades or so.
And before that, you have to remember that work based on manual effort is also a relatively recent thing.
Yes, people toiled, in fields or for others or as soldiers, but modern manual work is a relatively recent thing in human history.
What makes this kind of work different is that it’s industrialised, professional and treats workers better than they were treated in the past.
That’s the kind of work a lot of people did after the Second World War, as the productivity of each worker increased massively.
Because the methods that made manual workers were so successful, they have seeped into our consciousness as the “right way” to do things.
And so we use the principles developed to do manual work better to try and manage knowledge work as well – and find that it just doesn’t seem to do the job.
Why is that and what should we be doing differently?
To answer that question a paper by Peter Drucker called Knowledge-Worker productivity: The biggest challenge is worth a read.
The first thing that’s interesting is that Drucker argues that there was a period Before Taylor and a period After Taylor.
Frederick Winslow Taylor was the guy who studied how work was done and broke it into a sequence of simple, repeatable steps and effectively put in place the foundations of all “developed” economies.
What’s slightly startling is that Drucker says that all methods since then including Deming’s work and the Toyota Production System build on the system of thinking – the principles – that Taylor put in place.
Taylor said that you should look at the task and break it down into its components.
Get rid of stuff that isn’t needed, reorder steps so that they are simple and easy to follow – create a job that can be done again and again – and then redesign your tools to make it even simpler and faster to do the job well.
Manual work is all about how to do the job – and how to do it better and faster with less effort.
So, we apply this approach to knowledge work as well – we tell programmers how to set up their frameworks, we create processes for administrators to follow.
But in knowledge work the main issues is often figuring out what the task is in the first place.
And that requires a different set of skills – it’s more about listening and exploring than about doing and organising.
When it comes to actually doing the work, manual work is about meeting standards.
If you make a cup you want each cup you make to be about the same.
If you’re making steering wheels, every one that you make has to be within a certain tolerance if you want it to fit.
With knowledge work, on the other hand, you want the best quality you can get.
You don’t want an OK surgeon – you want someone who is very good at what they do.
The same goes for teachers and programmers and managers.
Quality in manufacturing can be measured while quality in knowledge work is often only seen through the experience of the customer.
Finally, when you’re looking at manual work you see it as a cost.
Ideally, you’d like to do three times the work, with half the people being paid twice as much – because people in this situation are costs that you need to reduce.
Knowledge workers, on the other hand, produce more the more they know, and are more valuable the better they get.
Having the best professors or the best surgeons on your team lets you raise your prices and get the best customers.
The thing with manual work is that an organisation has to take responsibility for developing its workers – managers have to work on the system to help them do their best work.
With knowledge work it’s perhaps more dependent on the worker to learn and develop – the company can give them projects and training but they have to really want to become the best they can be.
Companies that support this well become places knowledge workers want to work at – and that gives those companies a competitive advantage over those who think of them in the same way as they do manual workers.
When it comes down to it knowledge is about using information to create value.
And we’re all in the business of doing that these days.