Managing the visibility of knowledge work

Debates over whether the Internet is making us smart or stupid are entertaining in the bar and can serve as a pleasant background noise for ruminating during a keynote address in a dimly lit hotel ballroom. When I get back to work on Monday (or more likely on Sunday night) I return to the reality of working in a fundamentally digital environment. My files are digital, my tools are digital, and most of my interactions are digital.

As a knowledge worker, much of what I get paid for happens inside my own head. Before the advent of a more or less ubiquitous digital environment, however, that head work used to generate a variety of markers and visible manifestations. That visibility was important in several ways that weren’t evident until they disappeared:

  • Seeing work in progress in front of me made it possible to gauge my progress and make connections between disparate elements of my work.
  • Different physical representations helped to quickly establish how baked a particular idea was.
  • Physically shared work spaces supported rich social interactions that enriched the final deliverables and contributed to the learning of multiple individuals connected to the effort.

For all the productivity gains that accrue to the digitization of knowledge work, one unintended consequence has been to make the execution of knowledge work essentially invisible, making it harder to manage and improve such work. The benefits of visibility are now something that we need to seek mindfully instead of getting them for free from the work environment.

Knowledge work is better understood as craft work; its products are valuable because they are creative and original. Delivering identical consulting reports to different clients is grounds for a lawsuit, not an example of good knowledge management practice.

From a craft perspective, examining and understanding what constitutes a quality client report, for example, is an important part of the apprenticeship that transforms a recently minted MBA into a seasoned advisor. The visibility or invisibility of knowledge work products can make this process more or less difficult.

Before PowerPoint, crafted presentations began with a pad of paper and a pencil. You knew by looking at a roughed-out set of slides that it was a draft; erasures, cross outs, and arrows made that more obvious. You then took your draft to the graphics department, where you were yelled at for how little lead time you provided. A commercial artist tackled your incomprehensible draft spending several days hand-lettering text and building your graphs and charts.

From there you started an iterative process, correcting and amending your presentation. Copies were circulated and marked up by your manager and hers. Eventually, the client got to see it and you hoped you’d gotten things right.

Work was visible throughout this old-style process. Moreover, that visibility was a side effect of the work’s physicality. Junior members of the team could see how the process unfolded and the product evolved. You could see how editors and commenters reacted to different parts of the product. Knowledge sharing was a free and valuable side effect of processes that were naturally visible.

With e-mail, word processors, spreadsheets, and presentation tools, maintaining visibility of your knowledge work (at both the individual and workgroup level) requires mindful effort. An office full of papers and books provided clues about the knowledge work process; a laptop offers few such clues. A file directory listing is pretty thin in terms of useful knowledge sharing content. In an analog process, it’s easy to discern the history and flow of work. When an executive takes a set of paper slides and rearranges them on a conference room floor, a hidden and compelling story line may be revealed. You can see, and learn from, this fresh point of experience. That’s lost when the same process occurs at a laptop keyboard at 35,000 feet. The gain in personal productivity occurs at the expense of organizational learning.

In the digital process, who creates and what they contribute risks becoming more an exercise in political posturing and interpretation than simple observation. The abstracts in a document management system reveal little about what work is exemplary, new, or innovative, and obscures emerging patterns.

Invisibility is an accidental and little-recognized characteristic of digital knowledge work. Seeing the problem is the first step to a solution. While better technology tools will play an important role, the next steps are changes in attitude and behavior at the individual and work group level. For example, organizing your own digital files into project-related directories might help, but not if you continue to name files "FinalPresentationNN.doc" where NN is some number between 1 and 15 representing a crude effort at version control. Embed more information in the file name where you know it will be visible even as you e-mail it around the organization. Use more informative subject lines on your email. Those file names and subject lines should provide the best clues possible as to what will be found inside.

Systems developers have learned that time invested in naming standards and conventions pays off. Teams crafting knowledge-work products should make the same investments. Better yet, spend time with good development teams and look for ways to adapt their practices to more general-knowledge work.

New disciplines take time to become habits. Fortunately, they also eventually become "the way we do work here." As the disciplines take root, taking a more aggressive look at technology tools becomes appropriate. Many of the office suite tools offer some form of internal revision tracking or auditing tools. What’s missing is any systematic way to integrate these tools into a disciplined practice. The capabilities are there but they are irrelevant if they aren’t used intelligently. A version control system doesn’t do anything until you incorporate it into the routine practice of creating a new document.

The right starting point is to simply make the flow of work more visible. I suspect that this is one of the underlying attractions of social networking and micro-blogging. They promise to restore some visibility to digital team work that we lost in the first generation of tools.

If visibility is, indeed, important to effective knowledge work what else would you recommend as ways to manage and increase the visibility of the intermediate and end products of knowledge work and the people-to-people interactions that take place in creating those products?

28 thoughts on “Managing the visibility of knowledge work”

  1. Jim — I like this *a lot*, including your 2002 post “Knowledge Work as Craft Work”. Last year Jon Udell did a talk at the Open Education Conference on a similar theme of “Observable work” with a related theme:

    In the pre-industrial era, education and work were: Observable, connected

    In the post-industrial era, they are: Non-observable, disconnected

    [ See Slideshare slides ]

    I also resonate with “observable work” based on how we ran projects and programs at the Naval Research Lab

    [ Learn by watching, then do ]

  2. Thanks Greg – for the kind words and the pointers to Jon’s work – I’ve been a fan of his for quite a while –

    this is a theme I’ve been thinking about and exploring for some time and I think it’s time to dig into it some more in the next few weeks. Stay tuned.

  3. Jim — I look forward to reading more from you on this! The other reference I really like is Thomas Steward’s book “The Wealth of Knowledge” particularly this quote:

    “A whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard,” said Herman Melville’s Ishmael; when it came to learning my job, circulating correspondence was mine. Reading my superiors’ letters opened a window into how they conducted business with the world outside; I aped things more experienced colleagues did, and saw how they handled tricky situations; I copied useful addresses into my Rolodex (another antique). I learned who knew what, and that made me better at asking for advice.”

    I don’t think visible work or observable work is new – the notion of mentoring, apprenticeship, and letting newer folk watch, learn and try on their own is how law, medicine and other professions were originally taught.

    I think the notion of open, observable work – like open book accounting to employees is a simple and powerful principle that people at every level of an organization can adopt and adapt to. In my opinion this can succeed with support and encouragement of leaders as Peter Drucker defines that role.

  4. Jim this is really good. I came across this through a retweet by @roundtrip. I always like it when I have vague thoughts and feelings in the pit of my stomach that someone comes along and articulates it much better than I could myself. I intend to circulate it widely at work. I can’t wait to see the response that I get…

    In my own work life, I have been striving to make my work and the work of my team much more visibile.

    A concrete example we have is a project being tracked on an Excel spreadsheet, “scorecard” style. One enterprising employee has used Excel’s Publish to HTML feature to embed realtime updates of that Excel file on an HTML page in our E20 platform. Everytime he updates the scorecard, the very visible scorecard summary worksheet is updated on the article automatically. He then makes a comment on the article, describing the work being done. He’s going to set a record for the number of comments on an article (138 and counting), but I am telling you, it actually works. And it’s a great example I can use internally about making knowledge work visible.

  5. One element of the notion of visible/observable work that I find appealing is that it largely within local control. I do not need permission nor do I need assistance from somewhere else in the organization to make my own work more observable. I can do it for myself and encourage it among those I interact with. Moreover, there are more than sufficient benefits to warrant doing so. There will also be organizational benefits, but I can easily justify the effort based on the local (observable) payoffs.

  6. Jim — “Local control” is an excellent point. It can work with formal or informal groups or project teams as well as individuals, and draw others in by example as Brian notes.

  7. What a hallmark post Jim!

    Yes, the real learning is in all the nuances of how we work, not reading a manual, it’s a skill, a capacity to act….it’s experience.

    I agree that the digital era has allowed for invisible work to happen, but at the same time there is great opportunity for your work to be even more visible than it was in the pre-digital era. Now anyone (not just people involved on the task) can come across your work if you use social tools rather than email and attachments…indeed raw interactions are recorded (searchable).

    I also think that the constraints of geography and time in virtual teams, kind of means that you have to pay more importance to working more visibly, but not just in a synchronous way like tele-cons…we can use other social tools for when we aren’t all in the same room…and I’m not talking email.

    Michael Idinopulos has more:

    “In the old days, people collaborated in private. They talked to their friends and colleagues, wrote letters. Later they sent emails. All the real thinking happened in those private conversations. Eventually, once the key insights had been extracted, refined, and clarified, they published: books, articles, speeches, blast memos, etc.

    To me, the really exciting thing that’s happening in Web 2.0 and Enterprise 2.0 is that more and more of those private “pre-publication” interactions are happening in public (or at least semi-public). I think of this as the dawn of the “Work in Progress” culture. We no longer think that something has to be finished before we let strangers into the conversation.”

    Nathan Wallace is on the same meme:

    “The time taken to correctly phrase thoughts and distil ideas is unavoidable, but can be minimised by changing our expectation of shared content away from “finished product” towards “work in progress”. Publishing information early and often (rather than infrequently and completely) moves authorship away from essays and succinct conclusions towards sharing of insights and decisions. The ultimate method for sharing without increasing work is to move the work in progress into an open environment (share everything by default).”

    Michael also has another post on how office design effects awareness:

    “In the old place, when a broker got a tip about an upcoming earnings announcement or a CEO departure, we all knew about it instantly. You could actually watch the information roll across the floorlike a wave, going from one desk to the next, to the next until everyone in the office was talking about it. Now we sit in our private offices, we close our doors, and nobody has the slightest idea what’s going on.”

    You say “Delivering identical consulting reports to different clients is grounds for a lawsuit”. See the end of my post (heading-The myth of completeness) where I review a paper by Patrick Lambe on how blind re-use is not KM. It tells of an incident where the same report was used for two different contexts.

    “They way we do work around here” is not easily understood by reading documents, you have to feel it, but in the interim you can understand the character of a place, person or role if they left behind their social tool interactions, see my post

    As for conversations, and workings-out that lead up to deliverables…I always equate that to being able to see the workings out of a maths solution. All this “know-why” is in email, phone and meetings. When you look at a deliverable you see the “know-what”, but not often the “know-why” (all those micro-decisions and why they were made). Sure you may have to read a report, but this is an interpretation (with an agenda) after the fact, rather than raw recorded facts as it happens.

    Soon we are trialling a microblogging tool at work against the backdrop of our DMS. It allows our documents to have a comments stream…I call this “conversational metadata”. I’m hoping document reviews happen on the document rather than in email. Now when you want to know more about the “know-why” of a document, you can look at it’s comments stream…before this the “know-why” was in an email somewhere (it may as well not exist).

  8. John,

    Thanks for kind words. Even more, thanks for your own excellent additions to the effort here. Our own example of the value of making work in progress visible.

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  10. I found the explanation of using “A3” and “Teamboards” to make visible lean manufacturing in __Getting the Right Things Done: A Leader’s Guide to Planning and Execution__ to be very helpful.

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