Embrace the mess if you want to do better knowledge work

I’ve been deeply immersed in the recent profusion of new ideas, apps, and initiatives in the knowledge work  space. I’ve been working to make sense of a host of terms and concepts and discern their relevance to my own work. A partial list of those concepts (with some pointers to good entry points) includes:

There’s also a recent uptick in applications and services offering a path to implementing these ideas. These new apps are also fighting for mindshare with a set of existing apps. A very partial list (basically those apps I have experimented with or use with some regularity) includes:

Software developers, entrepreneurs, and evangelists of all stripes have to make the spine of their application, service, or approach clear and compelling. You’ve got to be a believer if you’re going to put in the time and effort to build something new. Early adopters also tend to be believers.

I tend to be an early adopter in many settings. But I’m also an old fart, so I’ve been jilted many times. Scar tissue provides perspective.

One of the drivers behind this surge in new work is the inexorable shift to knowledge work. Knowledge work is different from so much of the work that organizations have learned to manage and control. No matter what the bean-counters and compliance managers would like, knowledge work is inherently messy.

There’s a distinction in the world of early AI research that is useful in this context. The early world of AI research broke into two camps on the nature of intelligence; the “neats” and the “scruffies.” I took a look at this argument a number of years back in an earlier blog post on the realm of knowledge work–Knowledge management: the latest battle between the neats and the scruffies.

I once aspired to being a “neat”–business school is fundamentally targeted towards those who cherish and desire to impose order. The reality, linked no doubt to my ADD, is that I will always be a “scruffie.”

Fortunately, the world now aligns more closely with my “disorder.” You can’t get to “neat” without traveling through “scruffie.”

The challenge is that nearly all of the evangelizing and advice about new ideas is packaged as though that journey is over or, at least, easy. We get a “neat” picture of the destination. The journey is left as an exercise for the reader.

Even if the developers and early adopters acknowledge that there is a journey to be made, they gloss over the messy parts. If they share any details of the necessary hero’s journey, they offer just enough of the ugly parts to burnish their story. Preparing you for what you will encounter just gets in the way of the next chapters of their stories.

The absolutely essential step if you want to travel the path to being more effective as a knowledge worker is to accept that you have to walk the path for yourself. Seeking out more honest accounts of those who have traveled before you can help. Finding guides who can walk with you and help you avoid the quicksand and tar pits is even better.

But you’re still going to get dirty.

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