Multitasking might make you stupid, but that doesn't mean you have a choice

Sue Shellenbarger: Multitasking makes you stupid, studies say.

Sue Shellenbarger: People who multitask are less efficient than those who focus on one project at a time, says a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. The time lost switching among tasks increases with the complexity of the tasks, according to the research by [David Meyer, psychology professor at the University of Michigan] and others. (Via Frank Patrick.)

[Tesugen.com]

Sure it does, but does that mean you really have a choice? The research is intriguing. What I’d like to see next is some advice about making good choices about what and when to multitask and when and how to go after flow. The research only seems to go after the first part of the problem, which is to establish how much and what kind of degradation you might expect. The interesting part of the problem is how to get better at including multitasking appropriately in your repetoire of work strategies. Cause I sure don’t expect to get back to a world where I have the unfettered freedom to always single thread.

Email as a useful hybrid of oral and literate thinking

Back to the Oral Tradition Through Skywriting at the Speed of Thought. This is a light romp through the history of thought and communication, looking at the present evolution of email as representative of an oral tradition that has its origins in communual story-telling and modern incarnations as transitory as sky-writing. But, as the author reminds us, email (and online discussions) can also acquire the permanence of books, giving us the best of both worlds. True, scholars haven’t taken to the new forms the way they might. But they will. By Stevan Harnad, The Future of Web Publishing, February, 2003 [Refer][Research][Reflect] [OLDaily]

This is a line of thought that hadn’t occurred to me before. One of the books that’s influenced by thinking was Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. Ong discusses how oral and literate cultures think differently because of the way that oral and written speech differ. This piece suggests that one of the interesting dimensions of email is the way in which if combines elements of both.

One reason that may be important is to understand how different levels of management in organizations are biased in favor of different modes of expression and, if you buy Ong’s arguments, different modes of thinking. One hypothesis I’ve played around with is that senior managers and executives are fundamentally oral thinkers, while their technical staffs are literate thinkers. That may be a contributor to the problems in implementing new technologies in organizations.

Sharing knowledge with yourself

Stephen Downes responds to my recent post on weblogs and passion with the following observation:

Weblog tools are just another input device. Great. With a lousy search and user interface. Weblogs get data into the system, but that’s never been the problem with knowledge management: no, the problem is in using the data in any meaningful way. Will weblogs help with this? Not until something thinks seriously about the other end of the equation, thinks of the harried user rather than the inspired blog writer. [OLDaily]

While I agree that the current generation of weblog tools have some serious limits in terms of search and user interface, I disagree with his contention about where the problems lie in knowledge management systems. In the organizations where I’ve struggled to make knowledge management work, one of the fatal flaws has been the notion that knowledge management is somebody else’s problem. The silver bullet is out there in someone else’s head and “if only that lazy SOB had recorded the knowledge in the first place, then I’d be sitting fat and happy.”

I’ve concluded that one of the root problems with knowledge management is that I’m that lazy SOB. Until I start to do a better job of managing my own knowledge, why should I expect anyone else in the organization to do so? Weblogs are the first tool I’ve found that start me on the process of making my own knowledge more useful to me.

Here’s where the explicit vs. tacit distinction made so often in knowledge management discussions is misleading. Sure, the knowledge that has become so central to my work that I don’t have to think about it is a source of great power, is difficult to capture, and more difficult yet to share. But a huge amount of the knowledge important to me remains explicit and never ends up making the cut to tacit. That doesn’t mean I can’t make it a more useful resource to me.

Here’s a little test you can run on your own PC. Search for all the document files, spreadsheets, or powerpoint presentations stored on your machine. How many have a filename something along the lines of “final draft xx.doc” where xx is some number between 1 and 10? Can you tell what’s inside that file without opening it? If there was a diagram you used in a presentation last year that you wanted to use tomorrow, how many presentations would you have to open and scan before you found it?

The problem with getting more leverage out of knowledge work isn’t somewhere out there in the organization. It’s looking back at me in the mirror every morning. Worse than that, it’s that lazy slob I was looking at in the mirror six months ago who was too busy then to put a halfway decent name on a file or save that really great diagram as its own file.

What does this have to do with weblogs? Weblogs put the emphasis where I believe it belongs; on the individual knowledge worker. It encourages them to begin thinking about their own knowledge work more explicitly and systematically. It helps them realize that they are the problem and the solution. You have to learn how to share knowledge with yourself over time before you can begin to share it effectively with others.

No, it isn't done yet

The Death of Documents and the End of Doneness. I just stumbled across this article by [David Weinberger] from 1998 on “The Death of Documents and the End of Doneness”. This is how the article ends:

The cards are stacked against documents. We are seeing a massive cultural shift away from the concept of done-ness. The Web allows for constant process and enables open-ended groups of people to be invited into the process. Things on the Web are never done, and the damn “under construction” sign is implicit at every site. Why should anything be declared “done” when that means taking responsibility and arbitrarily picking a place to freeze a process in a context that is always always always changing?

Documents are things that are done. That is why the Web will kill them.

Its a great article and a penetrating insight into how the web is changing and will continue to change business life! [Gurteen Knowledge-Log]

The notion of doneness is worth thinking about. I suspect one of the organizational barriers to k-logs, weblogs, business journals, or whatever we end up calling them is this assault on the concept of done. Think of how many review processes and sign off workflows end up being barriers to moving forward on intranets and knowledge management initiative.

My positions on most topics is constantly evolving (hopefully in the direction of more sophistication). Weblogs provide a natural tool for capturing and reflecting that evolution. Once you get comfortable with that notion of flux, you also become more at ease with putting half of three-quarter baked ideas ought there to be seen and reacted to. It’s a terribly artificial notion that you or an organization must somehow come to a concrete, fixed-for-all-time, conclusion before you can put it out there.

Warren McFarlan used to tell a story about the risks of publishing as an academic. He claimed that publishing your ideas always meant that there was a permanent record of your bad ideas. But that is only true if you try to separate ideas from their context. For some aspects of science, I suppose you can strive for truths that are likely to last across many times and place. For most of the knowledge that I worry about, however, context is everything. Where you stand depends on where you sit. The more readily we not only acknowledge it but adapt our tools to reflect that the better off we will be. Giving up on the idea of doneness is a pretty good step in the right direction.

We all do knowledge work

We’re all knowledge workers now.

Here is a question:

How do you bring knowledge management to people who do not see knowledge as part of their job?

For example the workers in a process plant.  There is knowledge all around them and embedded in the work that they do.  How, in practical terms, to do you make them knowledge workers?

The question isn’t well framed yet as I’m still thinking out it’s dimensions… i’ll expand on it as I go and I welcome all input.

(Hint: this question isn’t entirely theoretical)

[Curiouser and curiouser!]

Matt raises an important question. First, in the example here, the question isn’t so much how do you make these workers into knowledge workers. They already are. The question is why don’t they view themselves as knowledge workers and does that matter?

I tried the following rules of thumb in a speech I gave last year. I figured you were a knowledge worker if:

  • 80% of your job is doing things that “aren’t your job”
  • “It’s not my job” is no longer an acceptable excuse
  • Your mother doesn’t understand what you do
  • Your boss doesn’t understand what you do
  • You don’t understand what you do

Flip, but there’s some essential truth buried here as well. Robert Reich talks about knowledge workers as “symbolic analysts,” which I find marginally helpful at best. At the moment, Peter Drucker has the most useful take on the problem I have found. I tried to capture some of his insight in a recent post I made on knowledge work and productivity.  

For me, the starting point is to look at knowledge work rather than at knowledge workers. For one thing that helps extend the focus to all those workers, like the ones Matt describes, who do knowledge work as only a portion of their work. It also helps by reminding us that there are aspects of every knowledge worker’s job that aren’t about knowledge work. Ordering a new battery for the old IBM Thinkpad I’m setting up as a Linux workstation is a pretty mundane information processing task at best. It’s certainly not knowledge work even if I am a knowledge worker. 

As I focus on the work as a path to understanding the worker, I find useful insights in thinking about the craft nature of knowledge work. In particular, the kinds of tasks that make up knowledge work call for much more reflection about what is going on than most of us find comfortable. We’re socialized to “get on with it” and “just do our jobs.” Reflection is unproductive and industrial work is about productivity. If my job is processing insurance claims or checking in returned rental cars at Hertz, then productivity is a legitimate concern. One the other hand, if my job is redesigning those processes, then I’d better be prepared to spend time reflecting as well as doing. If I am managing either of those processes, again, I need to be prepared to deal with the unexpected or unusual, which will also call on my ability to reflect and to connect my reflections to broader questions about organizational goals and mission.

What makes all of this challenging is how many more tasks call for an element of reflection and design as well as basic execution skills. What was the realm of senior executives, consultants, and analysts has become the day-to-day reality for much of the organization. This makes everyone uncomfortable. I can’t just check my brain at the door and do what I’m told. I have to think for myself and that can be painful. On the other hand, if I was one of the handful paid to think not just for myself, but for everyone else in the organization, the prospect of everyone thinking for themselves is at least scary if not threatening. On the scary side, there are lots of people called on to think for themselves who haven’t had a lot of practice. On the threatening side, if I’ve defined myself by my differences from everyone else in the organization, the prospect of being found out as less capable than I appear can be destabilizing.

We all do knowledge work. For some of us, it’s virtually all we do. For others, it’s a small component. Knowledge work is different mostly because the end products are defined in the doing, not in advance. That demands that we learn how to think about and be mindful of the work as we do it. That runs counter to what we are trained and socialized to do and that makes everyone uncomfortable. After years of getting credit for the answers, we need to learn how to craft better questions first.

Sharing vs. hoarding knowledge

Several items over the past few weeks all suggesting that sharing knowledge pays off far better than hoarding does. Handy to have around if you’re fighting arguments that investing in knowledge management has to overcome hoarding.

Napsterize Your Knowledge: Give To Receive. The primary lesson: “The more that a company shares its knowledge, the more valuable it becomes.” It’s astonishing how many people still don’t believe this. But when I look back at the success my website and OLDaily have brought me – despite my lack of any obvious qualifications in the field – it is self evidently true. When you share your knowledge, you share your ability, and this is what makes you or your company more valuable. People prefer to hire or contract for services based on proven ability nearly every time. Moreoever, the more you share, the more people share in return (many of the items in OLDaily are the result of submissions from readers), which increases your personal or corporate knowledge base. Anyhow, this article discusses some of the benefits of sharing knowledge and then offers some advice on how to do it. (This and the next two items via elearningpost.) By Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba, MarketingProfs, January 21, 2003 [Refer][Research][Reflect] [OLDaily]

Cluetrainish MDs.

Communities of Practice – The real thing!. Here is an excellent example of a medical team building their own Community of Practice using Radio so that they can serve their own Community better. [Robert Paterson’s Radio Weblog]

This looks like it kicks serious ass. From their “What we’re doing” document:

It seems very likely that the needed essential innovation in healthcare is sociological, more than technological innovation, more than economic innovation. We have more advanced medical technology than we can currently deliver to patients. We spend abut twice as much per person on healthcare delivery in the US as is spent in Great Britain and there is little to indicate our patients have better health or higher satisfaction as a result. The sociological innovation will be discovering how to cooperate. Some community will discover how they can cooperate among providers and with patients. That is the highly leveraged innovation. That community will change everything for the rest. The sciences of complex adaptive systems and social networks need to come together. To these we need to add the art of community conversations. [Seb’s Open Research ]

Hoarding is for the weak. Xerox has apparently proven what all knowledge workers intrinsically knew anyway; that knowledge hoarding is detrimental. Via Column Two

A recent Xerox research report has found that high-performing employees don’t tend to hoard information. According to the news summary: The idea that knowledge is power has been knocked on the head by researchers who claim that high-performing employees are more likely to be ones who proactively share information with their colleagues.

My own experience agrees 100%. I am personally more powerful in what I do when I collaborate and openly share with others. They provide essential critique, support and grounding for my thoughts. [thought?horizon]

Outliners NOT considered harmful

Guardian. Guardian: “Outliners force us into a way of thinking that is actively inimical to creativity.” [Scripting News]

Yet another boring screed about the evils of Powerpoint launched off the fact the Colin Powell used it to organize his briefing to the UN.

First, I have yet to meet anyone who has ever used one of the stupid Autocontent Wizards provided with Powerpoint. Second, if there is one positive feature to Powerpoint it is the outliner.

The issue is not a problem with Powerpoint. It is a problem with too few people who know how to use an outline as a thinking tool. Which has absolutely nothing to do with how most of us learned about outlines back in the fourth grade. For any argument or story longer than a paragraph there needs to be some structure of ideas, assertions, evidence, inferences, and conclusions. That structure is rarely a simple linear flow (ever listen to a toddler tell you about their day?). Finding that structure is an iterative effort of arranging and rearranging materials until the story works. Outlines are a tool for doing just that. One of the best innovations in PC software was making outlines something whose structure you could manipulate.

One of my favorite tools from the early days of the PC was Thinktank. It, along with its descendants, let you focus on manipulating the structure of your thinking instead of the form. The flaw of WYSIWYG tools like Word and Powerpoint is that they bury the important tools like the outliner underneath the fa ade of pretty fonts, justified text, and multi-column layouts.

Do you ever wonder what would have happened if word processors had focused more on helping the hard part of writing (thinking and organizing ideas) and less on the last 5% (making things look nice for management)? Remember that the early generation word processors were designed to improve the productivity in typing departments not the work of writers. To what extent does that bias remain embedded in the foundations of the products?

Is knowledge work improvable?

Dehumanizing Knowledge Management. Kim Sbarcea, CKO at Ernst & Young Australia (formerly a knowledge manager at Australian law firms Phillips Fox and Allens Arthur Robinson) 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]

I’m no fan of the term knowledge management (see this post for example) but I think it is a mistake to confound the issue of what to call knowledge management with objections to Taylorism.

Funny about the synchronicity of this coming into my aggregator as I was adding my notes about Peter Drucker’s thoughts on knowledge worker productivity. I’ve been working out some ideas on knowledge work and how to go about improving it. Taylor’s fundamental insights about work are pertinent, as is clarity about what organizational values matter.

Frederick Taylor and work as an improvable process

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.

The knowledge economy brings us back to a world of craft. While Taylor’s methods may not be relevant, his perspective is. His methods are irrelevant because the outputs of knowledge work are one offs. Analyses, decisions, designs, all derive their value from being tailored to the moment and the situation. If it can be reduced to standard operating procedure, it is information work not knowledge work.

This defines knowledge work and knowledge management as a residual problem. Knowledge work is the work that remains after you’ve solved all the easier problems. If you assume that managers are at least intendedly rational (thank you Herb Simon), then they generally tackle problems in the order of least effort/most return. That suggests that as you solve problems, your reward is harder problems left to solve.

There was a time when inventory management was a management responsibility of some import. Over time, operations researchers have structured and defined inventory management problems so that what were managerial decisions become the outputs of accurate information filtered through algorithms. The new managerial problem becomes one of ensuring that the relevant data is accurate and timely.

As a residual problem, the components of what constitutes knowledge work will be a moving target. There are two strategies for dealing with knowledge work in organizations. One is to target the tail of the distribution where problems are on the border between knowledge and information problems. Continue the strategy of turning inventory management into a structured information management process. Leave the remaining problems in the realm of management art.

The second strategy is to attack the center of the distribution. Return to Taylor’s fundamental insight that work is improvable and apply it to the new craft of knowledge work.

Is knowledge work improvable?

Stipulate that improving knowledge work is desirable. That still leaves the question of whether it is feasible. Taylor’s work focused on observing and improving repetitive manual processes. Later efforts extended the success to repetitive information processes. Two underlying strategies underpin much of that success. One strategy is Adam Smith’s basic notion of specialization of steps in processes. The other is a strategy of identifying and eliminating non-value added work steps from the overall process.

How, if at all, do these strategies apply to knowledge work? 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

Basic knowledge work 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.

Knowledge work and productivity

I’m rereading one of those classic Peter Drucker articles that make everything seem so straightforward and obvious. This one is from the Winter 1999 issue of the California Management Review and is titled “Knowledge-Worker Productivity: The Biggest Challenge.” (CMR, V.41, #2, Winter 1999, pp79-94) If it is typical Drucker, the rest of the world will start catching up with him in another couple of years. For those of us in the midst of knowledge work related topics, better to start paying attention now.

His essential thesis is that focusing on the productivity of knowledge work will drive economic success in the 21st century in exactly the same fashion that manual work productivity drove 20th century economies.

Some selected observations from Drucker.

  • “Whenever we have looked at any job – no matter how many thousands of years it has been performed – we have found that the traditional tools are wrong for the task.”
  • “What Taylor saw when he actually looked at work violated everything poets and philosophers had said about work from Hesiod and Virgil to Karl Marx. They all celebrated “skill.” Taylor showed that in manual work there is no such thing. There are only simple, repetitive motions. What makes them more productive is knowledge, that is, the way the simple, unskilled motions are put together, organized, and executed. In fact, Taylor wa the first person to apply knowledge to work”
  • “Making knowledge workers more productive requires change in basic attitude, while making the manual workers more productive only required telling the worker how to do the job. Furthermore, making knowledge workers more productive requires changes in attitude not only on the part of the individual knowledge worker, but on the part of the whole organization.”

Drucker identifies six factors that determine knowledge-worker productivity that I paraphrase as follows:

  • Definition of the task
  • Required autonomy of knowledge workers
  • Continuing innovation
  • Continuous learning and continuous teaching
  • Qualilty of outputs as signature requirement. Quantity is irrelevant until a quality standard exists
  • Knowledge worker as asset not cost

Lots of good material to chew on here. I’ll be revisiting this and pushing on it in the next few weeks.