The phrase “technology for us” has been kicking around in my head for the past several months. At the FASTForward ’08 conference, I took a first pass at articulating my thinking in a video interview with Jerry Michalski. Consider this my next attempt. I expect there will be more.
Technology for Them
Information systems in organizations generally have been “technology for them.” Accounting systems, inventory control systems, ERP systems, reservations systems are all designed and imposed on their users.
Done properly, these systems yield efficiencies, predictable quality, and significant economic benefits. The design and implementation processes for these systems are industrial engineering at its best. Expert designers observe, redesign, and streamline processes to define and constrain what the target user population is allowed to do.
In these systems, users are simply one component in a mechanistic environment designed to constrain behaviors. User roles are limited to situations where technology is too expensive and a human user is more economical. Individual creativity and initiative are neither desirable or appropriate.
Technology for Me
The personal computer revolution brought “technology for me.” We saw innovation and scores of programs designed to improve the productivity and effectiveness of individual knowledge workers. Few of us would go back to a world without spreadsheets, word processors, or the other tools made possible and accessible via personal level information technology.
The first waves of innovation in the PC world focused largely on individual productivity. Attention to work process, if any, was a function of the idiosyncrasies of each user. Broadly speaking, innovation took one of two forms. Programmers and developers generalized from their own needs to develop unique tools solving their own problems. With luck, those solutions found enough kindred spirits to sustain a market. Early examples here would include the original Visicalc, ThinkTank, More, and dBase. More recent examples would include MindManager, SketchUp, Powerpoint, and the Brain.
The alternate development path was more corporate, with planned attempts to meet the application needs of perceived large markets of individual information and knowledge workers. Examples here would include the original Lotus 1-2-3, Microsoft Word, and Visio.
This development path emphasized industrial and mechanistic conceptions of work. Moreover, the logic of mass markets produced products targeted to the perceived lowest common denominator of user needs. At its worst, this path leads right back to technology for them and Microsoft Bob as a distorted model of users and use cases.
Us as Knowledge Worker
There are two dimensions of “technology for us” worth exploring. The first is “us” as knowledge workers; individuals charged with “thinking for a living” in Tom Davenport’s coinage and expected to exercise substantial initiative and autonomy in the design and execution of their work. The second dimension of “us” is the degree to which key work products and deliverables emerge from the collective and coordinated action of multiple knowledge workers. We’ll return to this second form of us in a bit.
There are both political and practical problems with applying technology effectively to the unique needs of knowledge workers. Previous organizational uses of technology have not had to deal with situations where the target audience was free to ignore you. Knowledge workers occupy positions of power and influence within the enterprise. They have the power and inclination to ignore, dismiss, and actively undermine ill-conceived and poorly executed efforts to modify their work practices. For that matter, they have to power to dismiss well-conceived and well-executed efforts on their behalf.
If you’re smart enough to avoid the trap of trying to dictate an approach to this user community and actively engage them in the design and implementation process, you run into the next constraint. Knowledge workers can’t articulate quality, effectiveness, or efficiency with anything resembling the precision that applies to manual or information work. The nature of knowledge work and its deliverables makes typical measurement approaches suspect (see Crafting Uniqueness in Knowledge Work and The Invisibility of Knowledge Work, for example). We have only recently begun to understand individual knowledge work practices in ways that let us apply technology with some likelihood of success. In many ways we are still working out the details of the vision of knowledge work support first articulated by Vannevar Bush in the mid-1940s in As We May Think.
Us as Groups of Knowledge Workers
Organizations exist to solve problems beyond the capacity of individuals to tackle. This is as true of knowledge work as it is for all other types of work. For all the power of technology to make individual knowledge workers more productive and effective, the greater opportunity lies in developing skill at using technology to support collective activity.
What we haven’t yet done well is knit together our knowledge of how to improve group oriented work practices and technological possibilities. Further, the more promising efforts have seen limited penetration into organizations. When dealing with collective knowledge work we compound the problem of knowledge worker autonomy with the problem that the knowledge work processes we wish to improve are vague, imprecise, and squishy in ways quite uncharacteristic of the work processes we are comfortable working with in industrial settings.
If we take the analysis and improvement tools we are comfortable with in industrial process settings and simply port them to knowledge work environments, one of two things happens. Either, we become hopelessly frustrated trying to force a dynamic and fluid process into the confines of our swimlanes. Or, we mistake the small fraction of the process we can force fit into our tools for the entire phenomenon; guaranteeing that our target users will ignore us and route around our efforts.
While there are people who have thought about the problems of applying technology to complex knowledge work processes and practices, their work has not achieved the widespread adoption it needs to be a meaningful factor in most organizations. Some good entry points into this work include:
- Doug Engelbart. Toward High-Performance Organizations: A Strategic Role for Groupware
- Alan Kay. The Real Computer Revolution Hasn’t Happened Yet
- Dave Snowden. Cognitive Edge (Snowden’s blog may be the simplest place to start here; the papers tend to be a bit academic)
- Jeff Conklin. Wicked Problems and Social Complexity (pdf). Cognexus Institute
The inventory of technology solutions promising to streamline, improve, or transform group activities continues to grow, although it often seems more like baroque and rococo variations on a handful of themes than like new insights or frameworks. Will the next implementation of threaded discussion make any major contribution to educating a group on when and how to make effective use of that technique? Or to understanding what situations make it a poor choice of tool?
What seems to be missing is a synthesis of Group Behavior 101 and a groupware pattern language. I’m not aware of anything that would fit that bill, although Stewart Mader’s recent Wikipatterns might represent a potential starting point. Can anyone point to some examples I’m unaware of? Is this something that we should be working to develop?