Getting better at the craft of knowledge work

drafting CADHad lunch with my friend Buzz Bruggeman, CEO of ActiveWords, this week. Got a chance to look at some of the improvements in the pipeline. Not quite enough to persuade me to move back to Windows, but I do wish there was something as clever and powerful for OS X.

It led me to thinking about what makes some people more effective leveraging their tools and environment. Most of the advice about personal technology seems to focus on micro-productivity; how to tweak the settings of some application or how to clean up your inbox.

ActiveWords, for example, sits between your keyboard and the rest of your system. The simple use case is text expansion; type “sy” and get an email signature. Micro-productivity. If you’re a particularly slow or inaccurate typist and send enough email, perhaps the savings add up to justify the cost and the learning curve.

Watching an expert user like Buzz is more interesting. With a handful of keystrokes, he fired up a browser, loaded the New York Times website, grabbed an article, started a new email to me, dropped In the link, and sent it off. Nothing that you couldn’t do with a some mouse clicks and menu choices, so what’s the big deal? I’m a pretty fair touch typist; how much time can you really expect to save with this kind of tool? Isn’t this just a little bit more micro-productivity?

There’s something deeper going on here. What Buzz has done is transform his computer from a collection of individual power tools into a workshop for doing better knowledge work. It’s less about the tools and more about how you apply them collectively to accomplish the work at hand.

How do you study knowledge work with an eye toward turning out better end results?

We know how to do this for repetitive, essentially clerical, work. That’s the stuff of the systems analysis practices that built payroll systems, airline reservation systems, and inventory control systems. Building newer systems to take orders for books, electronics, and groceries still fall into the realm of routine systems analysis for routine work.

Most of this, however, isn’t really knowledge work; it’s factory work where the raw material happens to be data rather than steel. So the lessons and practices of industrial engineering apply.

What differentiates knowledge work from other work is that knowledge work seeks to create a unique result of acceptable quality. It is the logic of craft. One differentiator of craft is skill in employing the tools of the craft. Watching Buzz work was a reminder that craft skill is about how well you employ the tools at your disposal.

How do we bring that craft sensibility into our digital workshops? How do we create an environment that encourages and enables us to create quality work?

The way that Buzz employs ActiveWords smooths transitions and interactions between bigger tools. It also shifts attention away from the specifics of individual tools and towards the work product being created.

Consider email–a constant thorn for most of us. You can treat each email as a unique entity worthy of a unique response. You can perform an 80/20 analysis on your incoming email flow, build a half dozen boilerplate responses, program a bot to filter your inbox, and hope that your filters don’t send the wrong boilerplate to your boss.

Or, there is a third way. You can perform that 80/20 analysis at a more granular level to discover that 95% of your emails are best treated as a hybrid mix of pure boilerplate, formulaic paragraphs that combine boilerplate and a bit of personalization, and a sprinkling of pure custom response. Then you can craft a mini-flow of tools and data to turn out those emails and reduce your ongoing workload.

I can visualize how this might work. The tools are an element, but I’m more intrigued by how to be more systematic about exploring and examining work practices and crafting effective support for knowledge work.

Have others been contemplating similar questions? Who’s doing interesting things worth exploring?

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