Knowledge work effectiveness not efficiency

I started this blog in the earlyish days of blogging. I was teaching a course at Northwestern’s Kellogg School about strategic uses of information technology. The blog offered a way to share thoughts with my students. I quickly plugged into a community of like-minded bloggers in education and in knowledge work in general. In time, that network connected me to Buzz Bruggeman, CEO of ActiveWords. Buzz being Buzz, we connected and have remained friends and colleagues since. That is another story in itself.

ActiveWords is a Windows utility program. On the surface, it is a text substitution tool. Type “aw,” for example and the program will produce “ActiveWords” on the screen. It does much more than that, and there are comparable products on both Windows and Mac. When I was a Windows user, it was one of the first programs I installed on every new computer. I now use equivalents on the Mac.

But this is not a software review.

The default marketing strategy for this category of tool is to emphasize efficiency.The tools invariably come equipped with tools to calculate how much time you save by typing “aw” in place of “ActiveWords.” If you are, in fact, a reasonable touch typist, those time savings are modest. Frankly, they aren’t that great for poor typists. Yet, the people who do adopt these tools often become vocal fans and evangelists. Are theses fans simply horrible typists or are they on to something more interesting?

The marketing from efficiency argument is simple to articulate and deeply rooted in an industrial mindset. Tools are good if they make workers more efficient; Frederick Taylor opined on the size and shape of shovels to improve the efficiency of strong-backed men moving stuff from pile A to box B. Knowledge workers aren’t shoveling coal. None of us work in typing pools.

These tools and their effective (not efficient) use are better understood from the perspective of augmentation laid out by Doug Engelbart. Saving keystrokes isn’t the point; redistributing cognitive load is.

Software developers figured this out long ago and designed programming languages to handle the tedious aspects of building software so that developers could focus on the tricky bits. Bob Frankston and Dan Bricklin wrote Visicalc, the first spreadsheet program, so that they could focus on setting up the finance problem to be solved and let the computer take care of the arithmetic.

There is a conflict here to be managed between knowledge workers and conventional managers. If you are stuck in an efficiency world, you must resist the temptations to cram these approaches into an industrial frame. In an assembly line, the tools are part of the line; everyone uses the same pneumatic tools in the quest for efficiency.

Effectiveness calls for a more personal perspective. You might get away with mandating a standard set of tools —Buzz would be quite happy if Microsoft put a copy of ActiveWords on every Windows machine. But you can’t impose a standard set of abbreviations, for example, on every knowledge worker in the enterprise. That process has to be tailored to each knowledge worker’s individual needs.

Let me offer a simple example. Every time I decide to use the word “individual, ” I have to stop and think about how to spell it. That interferes with my train of thought. So, I’ve taught my Mac to transform “indv”into “individual.” The program I happed to use for this, TextExpander, will happily calculate how much time I save by typing 4 keystrokes instead of 10, but I don’t care. Maintaining my train of thought is something far more valuable than 6 keystrokes.

Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead captured this calculus long before I learned to type. He observed that:

Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them. Operations of thought are like cavalry charges in a battle—they are strictly limited in number, they require fresh horses, and must only be made at decisive moments.

What this does call for is learning to observe our own work and look for the speed bumps and other opportunities to redistribute the cognitive load.

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