Crumbling pyramids; knowledge work, leverage, and technology

PyramidThe consulting pyramid model needs to take its place alongside the monuments that gave it its name as a pretty but now obsolete structure. Making your living selling expertise by the hour is inherently self-limiting; you have to find a source of leverage other than the number of hours you can work or the hourly rate you can charge.

The default strategy in the professional services world—consulting, lawyering, auditing, and the like—has been to collect a set of apprentices and junior staff who will trade a portion of their hourly rates for the privilege of learning from you. It’s a reasonable tradeoff, a nice racket, and has supported the lifestyles of many a senior partner.

The last 25 years of technology development has eroded the foundational assumptions of how productive and effective knowledge work is best done. In the process the balance between learning and performing that made the leverage model make economic sense for both professional services firms and their clients has been upended. The failure to recognize this shift means that firms, their staffs, and their clients are all working harder and realizing less value than they could.

There are two elements to this erosion. The first is the challenge that today’s technologically mediated work environment imposes of making knowledge work difficult to observe. I’ve written about this problem of observable work elsewhere. In professional services, much of the apprenticeship activity is predicated on the ability of the more junior staff to watch and learn. If it’s hard to watch, then it’s hard to learn.

The second element is the increased productivity of the individual knowledge worker that technology enables. This may seem paradoxical. Why should the level of productivity be a challenge to the basic leverage model? Because leverage depends on being able to identify and carve out meaningful chunks of work that can be delegated to an apprentice.

It’s my hypothesis that changes in individual productivity clash with finding appropriate chunks to delegate. Often, the junior apprentice work was a mixture of necessary busy work with time and opportunity to inspect and understand what was going on and offer suggestions for options and improvements.

If technology eliminates or greatly reduces the necessary busy work, then the apprenticeship tasks begin to look a great deal more like training and development. The more training-like the task appears, the more difficult it becomes to charge for that person’s time and the more difficult it becomes to place them in the field where they must be to obtain the knowledge and experience they need.

The old cliche in professional services work is that the pyramid consists of “finders, minders, and grinders.” Built into this cliche is a set of assumptions about work processes anchored in a world of paper and manual analyses. That world is long gone, but we still haven’t updated our assumptions.

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