From managing knowledge to coaching knowledge workers

I’m continuing to work out the implications of shifting attention from knowledge management to knowledge work. It may not sound like a big difference, but I believe it will prove to be a crucial shift in perspective.

One important view of organizational design is the long standing notion that certain parts of the organization serve as buffers between a volatile external environment and a stable and standardized set of internal processes. The goal is to isolate variation and map it into standardized inputs to standardized products and services.

In an industrial world this is a very sensible organizational design strategy. In a knowledge economy, however, the goal becomes one of providing unique responses to unique inputs. Moreover, more and more of the organization finds itself coming into contact with the external environment. You can’t buffer it and you don’t really want to buffer it.

At the same time, our language and our metaphors keep pushing us back into that industrial, standardized, mindset.

As a consultant, my role is to help clients understand their unique problems and frame a suitably customized response. Yet the industrial mindset, and perhaps human nature to some degree, encourages us to sort problems into the bins we have learned to be comfortable with. To the client, their problem is unique. To the consultant it looks a lot like the last fifteen they’ve dealt with. This is why a client turns to consultants in the first place, but there’s an important shift in attitude that separates the best consultants from the rest. It’s a shift from shoving a problem into a particular standardized box to drawing on a deeper experience base to focus on the unique aspects of the problem at hand.

As an aside, my two favorite resources for helping develop this shift if focus are Peter Block’s Flawless Consulting: A Guide to Getting Your Expertise Used (Second Edition) and Gerry Weinberg’s Secrets of Consulting : A Guide to Giving and Getting Advice Successfully.

This shift in perspective is relevant to understanding why so many knowledge management efforts have failed and why focusing on managing knowledge work is likely to be more fruitful.

The fatal flaw in thinking in terms of knowledge management is in adopting the perspective of the organization as the relevant beneficiary. Discussions of knowledge management start from the premise that the organization is not realizing full value from the knowledge of its employees. While likely true, this fails to address the much more important question from a knowledge worker’s perspective of “what’s in it for me?”. It attempts to squeeze the knowledge management problem into an industrial framework eliminating that which makes the deliverables of knowledge work most valuable–their uniqueness, their variability. This industrial, standardizing, perspective provokes suspicion and both overt and covert resistance. It also starts a cycle of controls, incentives, rewards, and punishments to elicit what once were natural behaviors.

Suppose, instead, that we turn our attention from the problems of the organization to the problems of the individual knowledge worker. What happens? What problems do we set out to solve and where might this lead us?

Our goal is to make it easier for a knowledge worker to create and share unique results. Instead of specifying a standard output to be created and the standardized steps to create that output, we need to start with more modest goals. I’ve written about this before (see Is knowledge work improvable?, Sharing knowledge with yourself, and Knowledge work as craft). In general terms, I advocate attacking friction, noise, and other barriers to doing good knowledge work.

This approach also leads you to a strategy of coaching knowledge workers toward improving their ability to perform, instead of training them to a set standard of performance. In this respect, knowledge workers are more like world class athletes than either assembly line workers or artists. There are building block skills and techniques that can be developed and the external perspective of a coach can help improve both. But it’s the individual knowledge worker who deploys the skills and techniques to create a unique result.