Making Knowledge Work Observable

“You can observe a lot by just watching.” – Yogi Berra

A fundamental problem with today’s knowledge work is that you can’t watch it unfold. On a factory flow you can make very educated inferences about what is happening with a few moments of watching. You can’t say the same in your typical office or your average Starbucks.

You can’t manage what you can’t see. Frederick Taylor created the whole of Scientific Management simply by watching how laborers went about their jobs, recording what he observed, and asking “what if we changed X?”.

Before we have any hope of making knowledge work more productive or more effective, we have to make it visible. The problem is that we’ve spent the last several decades making knowledge work invisible. Not the outputs. The process.

How much of your work and the work around you takes place at a keyboard in front of a screen? When I first started writing, the process involved pen and paper and index cards. Those objects surrounded me as I hammered out drafts and outlines. Then the manuscript (or the hand-sketched slides) went off to a typing pool or the graphics department. Corrections got made in margins and cutting and pasting involved actual scissors and glue. Today, it is all digital.

I have no desire to go back to those days.

What I have learned is that it pays to think about ways to make the thinking that I do to get from germ of an idea to a final deliverable visible and observable. This draft is being written in one window on my laptop screen. To its left is another window containing my notes and what passes for an outline. Below that is a window with a time-stamped log of what I’ve been up to over the course of the day.

Is this the best way to manage my self? I have no idea. But it works well enough for the moment. My practices continue to evolve as new tools become available, new ideas and approaches surface, and my understanding of my own mind improves (we’ll talk about neurodivergence another day). But the starting point is to make it possible to watch so that I can observe.

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