Blogs and designing a knowledge work environment

Part of me is missing the Weblogs and Business Strategy conference in Boston, despite the excellent liveblogging going on from so many of the participants (topic exchange channel and Denise Howell in particular). My aggregator is overflowing with great input from the conference. On the other hand, the distance and the need to focus on my work at hand also provides a valuable filter for processing that input.

While my last several large posts have focused on wikis (part 1 , part 2, part 3) and the social dimensions of knowledge work, I want to shift back to the personal level of blogs. There’s a thread to the use of blogs inside organizations that I want to spend some time exploring.

As blogs and news aggregators move from fringe activity to leading edge phenomenon, it becomes possible to talk about the design of knowledge work. Tom Davenport, for example, has a column in the most recent issue of CIO Magazine [via Internet Time Blog] that says it’s time to look at improving the effectiveness of knowledge workers. He talks about a new effort by the Information Worker Productivity Council to study knowledge work tasks with an eye toward how Accenture and HP and Xerox can help (possibliy with an eye toward selling us something). That’s great and I’ll be following their work with interest. They’ve certainly assembled an all star list of researchers. I wonder if they’ll be blogging their efforts?

Meanwhile, I’m interested in following the radically decentralized action research program now underway in the efforts of all of us knowledge workers beginning to narrate their work and share in their collective experiments at making knowledge work more effective.

Some of us are lucky or talented enough to roll our own tools. Moreover, they’ve been willing to invite the rest of us in as co-designers . Now, many of the tools already in our toolkits theoretically allow us to participate in a design process. They’ve been built by programmers, after all, and programmers almost always prefer to solve general problems with tools rather than provide highly specific solutions to specific problems.

Unfortunately, most of those programmers work in organizations where the marketing staffs graduated from the “have solution, will travel” school of marketing and really aren’t terribly interested in having active customers who actually are interested in co-designing their tools.

In the blogging community, however, the offer to participate as co-designers is serious. Blogging tools represent my favorite class of tools–ones that can be abused in interesting ways, even by ordinary users. They grew out of their developers needs to solve their own problems. What becomes interesting now is the alignment between the problems of developers and the rest of us doing knowledge work.

Taking advantage of that alignment does demand that we take an active role in the design process. Knowledge work is craft work brought into the 21st century. As many have observed, knowledge workers own their own means of production. If we are craft workers and we are judged by the quality of what we create, then we have an obligation to be mindful about how we use our tools and how we fit them to our own needs. To be most effective, we need to take design responsibility for our own knowledge work environment. I’ll grant that we are still only at the Visicalc stage of blogging and aggregators. But that does not absolve us of the responsibility to understand and capitalize on what today’s level of technology can do for us.