Building A Bespoke Knowledge Work Environment with Off-the-Rack Tools

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I’m still slogging through the mess I spoke about last time. I just checked and I’ve written over 10,000 words since then; none of which yet rise to the threshold of being worth sharing. Some will before too long, I hope.

One of the thoughts that leaked out of my fingertips during that time is the seed of an idea that provoked this post.

As a knowledge worker, one permanent task on your to do list is to build a bespoke knowledge work environment using the off-the-rack tools  available.

I am in the midst of unpacking that idea for myself and decided it would be useful to share that process. I won’t expose all of the mess; the daily journal entries where snippets of this post first surfaced, the list of previous posts that I searched out and reread, the bullet point outline I am working from right now. But I will try to reflect the essentials.

I’ve organized this around the following four questions:

1. Why do you/I need a bespoke environment?

2. Why are most of us constrained to leverage off-the-rack tools?

3. Why is this perspective useful?

4. Where should you/I start?

Why do you/I need a bespoke environment?

Off-the-rack is a concept that didn’t exist before the industrial revolution. All products and services were bespoke. If you needed a new shirt, you made it yourself or had someone make it just for you. The industrial revolution and the industrial era were built on a different promise; accept some level of standardized product in exchange for a huge leap in average quality and a proliferation of choices. This has been such a successful strategy, that it’s easy to forget that it is based on a tradeoff.

Knowledge work and the products of knowledge work return us to a bespoke world. Value in knowledge work is correlated with uniqueness. I’ve written about this before (Balancing Uniqueness and Uniformity in Knowledge Work). If your goal is to pursue unique insights and contributions, you will want to tweak and tune your work environment in any and all of the ways that contribute to achieving that uniqueness.

Why are most of us constrained to leverage off-the-rack tools?

Inventing and building new tools is an order of magnitude more difficult than using existing tools. We tend to forget this when we reach for tools in an existing environment; you aren’t likely to think about what it takes to make a carpenter’s hammer as you pick one up to drive a nail.

Until recently, the fundamental tools of knowledge work were simple and readily available. Paper and pencil, blackboard and chalk, can take you far down the path of creating a knowledge work artifact of value.

Knowledge work, however, is fundamentally symbol manipulation in various guises. Communications and computing technologies are power tools for manipulating symbols. And, they are complex artifacts in their own right. You would no more think of writing your own word processing tool than you would think of forging your own hammer.

That does not, however, absolve you from learning how to choose and use available tools effectively.

Why is this perspective useful?

Adopting the perspective that the goal is a tailored environment and the available building blocks must be selected from what’s available sets up a tension that can be used to drive the design process.

Perhaps most importantly it provokes a recognition that simply picking tools is the least challenging task before you. That should establish an appropriate degree of skepticism about the blandishments of tool vendors and tool enthusiasts.

I took a look at this problem some time ago (Building Your Knowledge Workshop). That advice still applies. Your goal is an effective work environment, primarily for yourself. Individual tools come and go in your knowledge work environment much the same as tools accumulate and evolve in a conventional workshop. You need to grasp the work you are doing and the materials you are working with. And you need to learn what each tool can and cannot do in support of that work.

Where should you/I start?

There’s a decision to be made at the very outset of this process. It’s a choice about attitude or approach. You can elect to treat tools the way a new apartment dweller might. Get a starter set of basic tools assembled by some marketing intern at Home Depot and call the building super when you run into trouble. Or, approach the problem like a homeowner with a strong do-it-yourself bent. Investing in and learning to use professional tools for the most part. Knowing when to reach out to more experienced experts from time to time. Or, finally, you can offload your problems to a collection of experts and their tools. This increases your costs and leaves you beholden to the expertise and ethics of the experts you rely on.

I’m an advocate for the middle approach. That starts with getting a better handle on the work you do, followed by more diligently investing in learning how to use your existing tools. We don’t encourage either step in most organizational settings. Software development seems to be the only arena where practitioners routinely think about and invest in their tooling and practices.

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