Smart people doing smarter work

For today’s organizations, success depends on the effective care, feeding, and management of smart people. This is not the same thing as managing the ideas these smart people produce, which is where too many organizations get stuck. Ideas may be the basic output of the knowledge economy but you can’t manage by focusing on these outputs.

In an industrial economy, you focus on outputs and the game is to optimize the faithful replication of outputs. Organizations lavish attention on standardization, process, uniformity, and predictability to produce identical outputs. It is tempting to equate ideas with products because we know how to do and manage replication. Software behemoths like Microsoft were built on taking one expensive first copy and figuring out how to distribute that copy as far and wide as possible. There was so much money to be made in the replication and distribution of the copies that there was little need to think, much less worry, about the economics of creating copy number one.

Professional service firms, advertising agencies, and other knowledge intensive organizations pay more attention to the economic importance of ideas. But their management focus and attention ignores the hard problem of the gestation and delivery of new ideas. Instead they apply the techniques and mindsets of industrial models to standardizing the irrelevant. They industrialize support processes and functions. In the best cases, they make an effort to streamline and support the work of the creative core. But their principal managerial strategy is what Tom Davenport accurately characterized as “hire smart people and leave them alone.”

How do we systematically enable smart people to do smarter work? Where are the effective leverage points if industrial models aren’t the answer? First, it helps to look at individual knowledge workers and groups separately. Second, we need to focus on effectiveness over efficiency.

I’ve written elsewhere about the challenges of looking at knowledge work–Managing the visibility of knowledge work – McGee’s Musings. An excellent recent example of this kind of observation of work practice and its value comes in a recent blog post by author Steven Johnson, “Why Writing Books Is More Than Processing Words – Workflow – Medium,” where Johnson reflects on how he approaches his work. To improve the effectiveness of knowledge work we have to go into the wild and study what practitioners are actually doing.

What I’m suggesting is the value of “reflective practice.” Donald Schön, late of MIT. argued that management–and knowledge work–is characterized by the need for practitioners to formulate and build theories of their work and their environment as an ongoing component of doing their work. “Practice” and “reflection” are both necessary to becoming effective in complex knowledge work settings.

This is more demanding than simply thinking about knowledge work in terms of productivity and efficiency. It asks you to think at multiple levels of analysis in parallel; to be adept at both cognition and meta-cognition. Most damning, perhaps, is that this course of inquiry appears to be overly abstract and academic to most managers.

We need to build better insight into how knowledge work gets done and how smart people are attempting to systematically improve their practices. That means going into the wild and studying what practitioners–effective and ineffective–are actually doing. For knowledge intensive organizations, this is an effort that can potentially yield substantial gains in knowledge work effectiveness.

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