Perspective on Designing and Managing Knowledge Work … Inside Knowledge Masterclass, Part II


Social computing drives change

Depending upon where we start counting, we are at least thirty years into what we call the Information Age and about ten years, give or take a couple of years, into what we are now calling the Networked Age. This new environment promises to bring as much or more change to our societies as did the Industrial revolution and Taylor’s concepts and principles.

Stan Davis, an eminent American business thinker and theorist, saw this coming twenty years ago (and suggested that the process of large-scale transformation would take somewhere between 30 and 50 years). In his seminal book Future Perfect he stated:

"Electronic information systems enable parts of the whole organization to communicate directly with each other, where the hierarchy wouldn’t otherwise permit it.

What the hierarchy proscribes, the network facilitates: each part in simultaneous contact with all other parts and with the company as a whole. The organization can be centralized and decentralized simultaneously: the decentralizing mechanism in the structure, and the coordinating mechanism in the systems.

Networks will not replace or supplement hierarchies; rather the two will be encompassed within a broader conception that embraces both.
We are still a long way from figuring out the appropriate and encompassing organization models for the economy we are now in."

The early stages of adapting to this large-scale transformation have brought the use of networks and what we call “social computing” into today’s knowledge-intensive workplaces. We are calling this domain or research, theorizing and practical experimentation Enterprise 2.0 (a term coined by Andrew McAfee of the Harvard Business School).

It’s my assertion that the changes social computing will bring to knowledge work and our workplaces will be even greater than suggested by immature experiments in this early-stage adaptation. While the early adopters play with tools that allow them to connect, create, converse, convulse, co-opt, and carry on about all manner of things, including work issues, challenges and opportunities, I believe more experiments, more practice and more experience will highlight how critical it is to design knowledge work differently. Indeed, today’s debates about whether KM is dying or alive and kicking are a vivid example of how much more we will learn about why, when and how to use networks, the web-based tools and services that make them practical and how best to engage the human minds that create and use the knowledge they carry.

David Weinberger is a well-known expert on knowledge management and the hyperlinked web / organization.  He has from time to time written about how the digital infrastructure and the dynamics it fosters "cuts the slack out of interactions" (The Need For Leeway, Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization, October 2002).  We need "slack" to reflect, to think, to imagine, to support the filling in and filling up of the connections we have made between people, information, task and problems. 

And we need analysis and measurement, specialized skills, budgets, accountability and best practices to optimize work and eliminate what is clearly unnecessary, not useful and / or wasteful.

But efficiency is not and will not be the hallmark of human interaction, and human sociology in the modern workplace cannot forever take its architectural design principles from Taylorism. 

As we watch Enterprise 2.0 emerge, I have observed what seem to be regular waves of widgets, applications, platforms, services and people (in roughly equal measure) joining together, using the Web, to meld efficiency and slack—the "both / and" so often cited as characteristic of this new environment.  A flow of questions, responses and pertinent information soldered together to provide a design, or a service, is not the same as carrying out efficient repeatable supervisable step-by-step tasks the result of which are combined with other sets of efficient repeatable supervisable step-by-step tasks to produce repeatable products or services (Reminiscent of “You can have any color Model T you want, as long as it is black”).

Continued resistance

While it appears that the Internet (and the difficult-if-not-impossible-to-control flows of information it engenders) is here to stay, it also seems that about every six months or so there’s another wave of opinion suggesting that "this newfangled hyperlink stuff, personal publishing, connecting social-this-and-that is now officially over and hasn’t yet changed the world".

It’s not news, nor is it surprising, that there is resistance and confusion about why and how to implement Enterprise 2.0 technology and capabilities in today’s organizations – the continuous flows of information and the growing prevalence of interconnected customers and knowledge workers do not fit easily into more-or-less static structures and processes. We all see a lot of resistance on the part of senior managers and executives to the less structured, less ordered world they see the Web offering their customers, the employees that work in the organizations they direct and manage, and everyone else out there who might have occasion to enter into contact with the organization for which they work.

An significant proportion of that resistance, both intellectual and cultural, comes from the inability to acknowledge that maybe work cannot be designed and structured based on the principles that have been in place for more than three-quarters of a century now.  Much of that in turn has to do with what the words “work” and "management" still mean to us (especially the incumbents of managerial roles).  It’s hard to give up power and control, especially when you are charged with making stuff happen and the budgets and performance management and compensation bonus schemes reinforce the collective charge:

"we tend to overestimate the impacts in the short term because we overlook all the details of how things are done and the tenacious stickiness of peoples’ habits, and tend to underestimate the impacts in the longer term because we overlook or ignore the scope and depth of accumulated change."

Today, there’s a lot of chatter about bottom-up versus top-down, about the collective wisdom of the organizational crowd, and about various related themes.  However, there’s also ongoing dissonance or competition between the approaches to organizing and “optimizing” knowledge work. This competition hearkens back to Stan Davis’ forecast about the integration of hierarchy and networks, and highlights the tensions and friction between structured and defined organizational forms and activity and the growing world of hyperlinked flows in which knowledge and meaning are built layer by layer, exchange by exchange (all those hyperlinked interactions that increasingly make up what we call "knowledge work") as enabled by social computing.

This concludes Part I of the Masterclass on ‘The design and management of knowledge work in perspective’. Part II will follow in the November issue of Inside Knowledge.

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