Can Knowledge Work Be Improved?
Jim McGee on Augmenting Knowledge Management...
Is knowledge work improvable?.
Dehumanizing Knowledge Management. Kim Sbarcea, CKO at Ernst & Young Australia ... dislikes the term knowledge management. It reminds her of "Taylorism"—the scientific management of factory work. Frederick W. Taylor (1856-1915), was a mechanical engineer known for his innovations in industrial engineering. He applied his engineering innovations in a such a way as to de-humanize factory workers to the point of turning them into robots.
Sbarcea likens knowledge management to Taylorism: "KM techniques carry the marks of modernity in that we are trying to 'manage' knowledge using command and control language and methodologies. We speak of 'capturing' knowledge; we obsess about measuring its effectiveness and watch for the bottom line impact of KM initiatives." Sbarcea prefers a more "organic" approach to managing knowledge. In fact, she prefers to calls knowledge managers "knowledge enablers." [excited utterances]
...Praised or vilified, Frederick Taylor is widely acknowledged as one of the seminal thinkers of the industrial age. One of his central contributions was establishing the notion that work was systematically improvable. In the craft world that preceded him, masters set a standard to which apprentices aspired. Moreover, this standard was of the quality of the finished product. Process was essentially invisible; certainly not something worthy of attention....
...Does it make sense to think of process improvement at all in the context of knowledge work? Will the strategies of specialization and elimination continue to be the most relevant and productive ones to apply? Or have we reached the limits of return on these approaches and it's become time to consider alternate strategies?
This is the question that Doug Engelbart identified in the 1960s with his distinction between automation and augmentation. Automation is a substitution strategy. Replace intelligent people in systems with process. It has yielded remarkable results. Augmentation is a partnership strategy. How do you allocate tasks in a system that has both intelligent people and powerful process/technology? In this approach it is worthwhile to think about a general purpose knowledge work process that is relatively simple and very robust...
Knowledge Work as a Process
This is a process that is fundamentally iterative. The loops in this process are feedback loops, not opportunities for streamlining. You don't improve this process by rearranging the steps or breaking them down into specialized tasks to be distributed. Nor are there opportunities to eliminate non-valued added steps. Improving the value of knowledge work calls for different strategies. Two that are worth exploring are to improve the infrastructure at the periphery and to eliminate friction. I'll come back to that tomorrow or Monday.
The other major contribution of Taylor is metrics. In an industrial firm, putting these measures in the hands of a select group of decision makers charged with optimization proved effective, albeit dehumanizing. When KM emerged, for some silly reason, it emphasized management over measurement. What's worse, implementations followed a hierarchical command and control model -- providing metrics and decision making authority in the hands of a select few. As Zack Lynch likes to say when describing the failings of KM: "you can't manage what you can't measure."
Most of the measurements in the early stage were created to justify its ROI at the strategic level. The problem KM will always have is that information and knowledge has no value until it informs a decision with a specific outcome. Intangible assets are not coming back into vogue soon, so the focus should be on making work more productive.
What's promising in the current KM wave is an increased focus on measurement and metrics. The challenge is 70% of Community of Practice communication happens in a private space (e.g. e-mail, phone, face-to-face) [Mathemagenic]. You can't measure what you can't sample.
The danger of implementation is providing measurements and decisions in the hands of a qualified few instead of an open-book management style of providing measurements for all. What I like about Jim's model is its closer to the way people really work as a fluid process and emphasizes feedback. Tools like blogs can augment this process, both by bringing knowledge into the public sphere and providing methods of measurement and feedback.