Knowledge work and micro-processes

[cross-posted at Fast Forward blog]

Recently, I sat through a presentation about a Sharepoint-based intranet project to improve processes within the HR group of a medium-sized organization. The process in question was one of collecting annual performance reviews throughout the organization. Using Sharepoint, the HR group and their consultants replaced Word documents, spreadsheets, and email with Infopath forms and programmatic workflows. The client was happy and the consultants had a nice demo they could show to their prospects. Nonetheless, I found myself dissatisfied.

For all the new technology deployed, this effort struck me as an example of what my old friend and mentor Benn Konsynski calls "speeding up the mess." This HR process is an instance of the micro-processes that comprise knowledge work activities in organizations.

Other examples might include:

  • Customizing an existing sales presentation for a meeting with a new prospect
  • Designing the agenda and preparing materials for an internal brainstorming meeting
  • Putting together the briefing materials for a quarterly business review meeting
  • Analyzing and making sense out of a competitor

David Maister on getting from strategy to execution

Strategy and the Fat Smoker; Doing What’s Obvious But Not Easy, Maister, David


David Maister has spent years advising professional service firms on the particular challenges of running their businesses. I first met David during my MBA days when I was a student in his course on the Management of Service Operations. I’ve come to trust his insights and perspectives about the professional world I occupy. More recently, I’ve come to see that his perspective is more generally relevant as more and more of us do work that is effectively professional, even if we are not inside actual professional services organizations. There is a substantial overlap between professional work and knowledge work, which makes Maister more relevant than ever.

Strategy and the Fat Smoker is David’s most recent effort to share his insights. In it, he turns his attention to the particular challenge of bridging from knowing what to do to actually managing to do it. In fact, David starts with the observation that “real strategy lies not in figuring out what to do, but in devising ways to ensure that, compared to others, we actually do more of what everybody knows they should do.”

Structurally, Maister works through his argument by working through what constitutes strategy in this particular perspective, the central importance of client relationships, and how those shape the kinds of management practices most likely to be effective.

For Maister, strategy is primarily a problem of organizational design and management, which is the soft stuff that always turns out to be hard. It is particularly hard, however, when the organization in question is populated with professionals/knowledge workers who must produce and deliver services to clients. You cannot succeed by designing systems and processes to compel behavior, because you have a workforce that can’t simultaneously be forced to comply with a system and exercise their independent and autonomous judgment. Maister explores this issue by focusing on two dimensions that characterize a professional; to what degree do they prefer to work solo vs. collaborate within a team and to what extent to they prefer immediate rewards vs. being willing to invest now in future payoffs. The point, of course, is not that one set of answers is better than another, but that trying to mix people with different answers in the same organizational environment is probably not a terribly good idea.

David also presents a provocative discussion of the importance of organizational purpose. While he acknowledges that shared purpose can be a very powerful tool within an organization, he argues that the power only comes when there are clear “consequences for non-compliance.” Until and unless you can translate generalities about purpose into clearly stated and observed rules of performance, then there’s no point to worrying about purpose.  Put more positively, the test of strategy comes in working out and then operating within the day-to-day rules of performance that make sense for your strategy.

In one sense, Maister doesn’t break any extraordinary new ground. What he does do is to challenge you about how willing you are to drive grand ideas deep into how you choose to do your work on a day-to-day basis. And he offers lots of good, concrete advice on how to make that transition.