knowledge work improvement – black box, white box, and deliverables

I've talked before about Peter Drucker's recent thinking about how to improve the productivity of knowledge work. Productivity improvement is driven by a process of observing how work gets done and rethinking, redesigning, and tweaking the process so that fewer inputs and less effort go into producing the same quantity of output.

Essential to that improvement is the ability to define outputs and inputs precisely and to observe the transformation process carefully. Ideally you treat a task as a white box that you open up and play with. A fallback, and less effective, approach, when the process is hard to observe, is possible if you can still observe the outputs. You treat the process as a black box and constrain inputs or tighten cycle time standards. As long as you can observe the outputs and measure them with some accuracy, you can get some degree of productivity improvement simply out of being demanding.

As weak a management strategy as this may be, it can work tolerably as long as you can agree on how to measure the outputs. Unfortunately, it fails utterly as a management strategy when the outputs are difficult to characterize – i.e. for most of knowledge work. The most typical alternative strategy doesn't help. That is to shift focus from measuring outputs to measuring inputs. If you can't observe the process to improve it, and you can't figure out how to assess the outputs, you measure and manage the inputs.

Conceptually, if you can't measure the outputs you can't measure productivity. This leads to such common management nonsense as rewarding people on how many hours of unpaid overtime they put it or what time they show up in the morning and leave at night. This is marginally defensible if you convince yourself that everyone is producting widgets of roughly equal quality. It seems pretty suspect when you apply it to knowledge work.

This issue becomes more pertinent as the percentage of people in organizations who are knowledge workers grows. When only a handful of your workforce are knowledge workers, you don't truly care about their productivity. To the extent that you do, you can make qualitative judgments about whether the outputs produced are acceptable.

There is an old tale, probably apochryphal, of Tom Watson at IBM. Showing a fellow CEO around the office, they came across a staffer with his shoes off and feet up on the desk doing nothing. Watson's guest was outraged and asked why Watson didn't fire the slacker on the spot (although I wonder what term he used in place slacker). Watson's answer? “The last idea he had saved IBM $50 million; I'm waiting for the next one.”

As enlightened a management response as that may be, it isn't one that scales very well. You need a more systematic approach when substantial numbers of your organization are expected to produce and deliver money saving or money making ideas. Part of this will require us to begin looking at knowledge work as an improvable process.

Knowledge work as a process

Basic knowledge work process

The managerial job in this process is in the last step “Evaluate and Assess.” But it's not done by standardizing the work products/deliverables. By definition the outputs of knowledge work are unique. That's what makes them knowledge work. If they can be standardized, then we're talking about factory work, and we already know how to improve that.

One route to a solution is to look at how professional services firms have tackled the problem. I'm not talking about their generally disappointing first generation efforts at knowledge management. Instead I'm talking about something so ingrained in consulting firms that we've lost sight of what an innovation it was — the deliverable.

I've begun to entertain the hypothesis that the deliverable is one of the lasting contributions of the consulting profession. Not the bound powerpoint presentation gathering dust on the shelf. But the concept of turning a knowledge work process into some kind of visible result that can be inspected. Once you have something you can inspect, you have something you can begin to manage.

The mistake that gets made is to try to immediately force this into an industrial model. Yes, we can now inspect the result, but we still know very little about its quality. We listen to stale management maxims like “if you can't measure it, you can't manage it” and immediately start counting things because we can, not because it makes any sense. This is a good time to bear in mind Einstein's observation that “not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

There's plenty of mileage to be gained from some careful observation before we get wrapped up in statistics. The first distinction about knowledge work deliverables as opposed to widgets is that the quality of deliverables is always negotiated and constructed. If the client isn't happy with the 100-page powerpoint presentation, it isn't done. If the first three pages answer the question, it is and the remaining 97 are irrelevant.

One of the unfortunate side effects of the various productivity tools made available to us over the past 20 years is that it has become easy to produce what used to be useful indicators of quality (professional type, color diagrams, fancy bindings) without necessarily producing the actual quality. One option is to put your trust in reputation. Certainly, some consultants have raised that to an art form. A better, but more difficult, option is to spend some actual time reviewing the content. If you do take that tack, you'll find that you want to do that reviewing, evaluating, and negotiating of quality along the way. Otherwise you increase the risk of wasting a lot of expensive time and effort producing the wrong thing.

The challenge here is not simply the change this entails in management style, but also the change it entails in the knowledge worker. If I am producing a deliverable whose quality must be negotiated with the client, I have to take the quite real risk of sharing my thinking before it is complete.

These can be hard habits to break. We're accustomed to providing and evaluating the “right answer.” Putting an incomplete and still evolving hypothesis out there is risky. Trying to help someone shape that hypothesis into a better one without doing the work yourself is equally hard and frustrating. It's so much easier to shove the process into a binary one – done/not done.

Weblogs are one useful tool in making this negotiation of quality easier. The format makes it easier to develop ideas in what feel like more manageable chunks.

Alan Cooper on knowledge work as craft

Commercial programming is clearly a craft. Unfortunately, the failure of our profession to recognize this has allowed two profound problems to grow. First, programmers almost never work to a plan. All craftsmen exercise their skill within a context well defined by detailed, written descriptions of the desired ultimate form. These plans are typically devised and drawn by an architect, a role rare in the software world. Architectural plans are necessary to ensure that the work of multiple craftsmen dovetails together, and that it meets the buyer's expectations. Most contemporary programmers work only from a list of features and a deadline.

Second, programmers are almost never supervised. Craft is by nature detail-focused and deeply involving. Good craftsmen regularly work in a state of flow, so they must depend on others to make sure their efforts merge with those of other craftsmen. The supervisors aren't there to keep craftsman from dodging work, but to ensure that the big picture is tended to. A well-crafted building, for example, is more than an assemblage of sturdy walls; the walls must connect properly. The craftsmen can do this, but they rely on someone else to coordinate their work.

[Visual Studio Magazine – The Software Architect – The Craft of Programming]

Excellent food for thought from Alan Cooper. While he is focused on programmers, I think his points are more broadly applicable to a variety of knowledge work settings. He helps identify some of the critical dimensions along which knowledge work as craft differs from industrial work and how those differences have important implications for management. Thanks to Roland for the pointer.

 

Thinking in public, part 4 – impact of loose coupling among weblogs

KM, blogs, dialogue, identity building. Good summary of an interesting discussion between Jim McGee, Sebastian Fiedler, Lilia Efimova, Denham Grey on Blogs, dialogue and identity… [elearnspace blog]

Nice point about how this thinking in public is a set of parallel threads that intersect and separate. You get the freedom to reflect on what you're reading in other blogs, but you also get to engage in this loosely coupled interaction.

I wonder if part of what I'm finding valuable in this addition to the broader set of tools for thinking is this degree of “loose coupling?” You're not wrapped up in the middle of an argument, but you also don't have a real opportunity to wander off into the poppies and contemplate your navel. I think this is particularly so if you add in the aggregator/news reader side of this interaction. I'm able to track this evolving exercise in collective reflection without having to go from place to place to follow it. At the same time, all of my reflections are collected in this one spot (and shared via my news feed).

Thinking in public, part 3 – risks and barriers

Got an interesting email from one of my readers, Jack Vinson. I'm reposting it with his permission.

I have to mention a concern that will arise as blogging gets higher on the corporate radar screen.

In today's blog you summarise that weblogs enable people to “think out loud” in a convenient way. This is something that corporate lawyers will wince to read. And prosecuting attorneys will drool. The problem is the way the US court systems have developed: A prosecuting attorney can dig through any and all relavent documents, looking for damning content. And this content is frequently devoid of context. “Look what that manager wrote in the marginalia!” Or “Look what 'evil' comments I found in the original version of this document” (from documents that have used the Track Revisions tool in MS Word). Never mind that the larger context has nothing sinister happening.

I could easily imagine that weblogs could be host to all sorts of “thinking out loud” discussions that would be ripe for the picking.

Of course, companies have to deal with these kinds of things all the time. They must get business done, while at the same time protecting themselves as much as possible. Most will encourage their people to “write smart” when committing anything to a potentially permanent record.

First off, it's clear we need to encourage Jack to join the ranks of bloggers. And I suspect that he's right about what some of the early reactions are likely to be from corporate counsel. How do we work through this objection?

For most companies the focus will remain on doing business and doing whatever best contributes to getting the job done. I remember a conversation a few years back with an attorney who had done some work with Cisco. Cisco managers basically said “we're using email to run our business, we're making commitments and binding agreements with it, and it's your job to figure out how to make that work, so deal with it.” While there may be some initial hemming and hawing, the concerns Jack raises won't be show stoppers.

I think there are two reasons to believe that internal weblogs will actually prove to be a better solution than email and newsgroups for this category of concerns. First, weblogs directly address the out of context problem created by email and newsgroup and exploited in discovery proceedings. Weblogs keep the context visible both in terms of the chronological and archive structures of the weblog format and in terms of the practice of linking across weblogs. Second, is the point that Jack raises at the end. The public nature of weblogs does encourage more attention to “writing smart” than email and newsgroup formats. It helps keep you focused on the notion that you are writing for the record. I sometimes wonder what would have happened at Enron if they had done more of their thinking “in public.” If an extensive weblog culture had been in place, could they have done wha they did? I don't know what the answer to that thought experiment might be. But if you had a choice between joining an organization with an active weblog environment or one that discouraged them, which would you choose?

Thinking in public, part 2

Lilia, Sebastian, and Denham are picking up on and adding to my attempt to figure out where blogging fits in the world of knowledge work. Thinking in public was the way I chose to label a talk I'm giving later this week at Seabury Western courtesy of a gracious invitation from AKMA. It's the next stage in a idea I started working out a while back of “knowledge management with a small k.”

Weblogs are the latest in a long line of tools being applied in the realm of what has been loosely labeled knowledge management. I say “loosely” because so many different tools and techniques have been thrown under the knowledge management umbrella that I'm not sure there's any room left for the knowledge workers this is all supposed to help.

I've owned the knowledge management problem in one medium sized consulting firm and I've tried to communicate some of what I've learned in one MBA level course at Kellogg. I've been online since 1980 when I took an online seminar at NJIT run by Starr Roxanne Hiltz and Murray Turoff after devouring The Network Nation. I've used Lotus Notes, threaded discussions, email, IM, web pages, various collaboration tools and group decision support systems, and now weblogs with varying, and generally less than satisfying, degrees of success.

Denham suggests “thinking together” as preferable to “thinking in public,” and suggests the following interpretation:

Thinking in public is all about taking a stand, being open to alternative views and engaging in thought exchange. Here is where I think I differ from bloggers – the value of thinking in public is not about personal risk taking, publishing or pushing (your) ideas, it is about being receptive to the thoughts of others – that listening & dialog thing again.

I think he takes my notion a step farther than I was intending. I agree with Denham that the goal is to be receptive to the thoughts of others and that “thinking together” can indeed lead to better results than thinking alone (as does drinking together instead of drinking alone).

My problem is this. Most of the technology tools for supporting thinking together (e.g. discussion forums, threaded discussion, wikis) depend on skills and norms that I've found to be rare in practice and challenging to promote. My intuitions tell me that there are important differences with weblogs that address at least some of these issues.

[As an aside, I use the word “intuitions” quite deliberately. Gary Klein in his excellent book, Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions, shows that intuitions are a form of pre-packaged knowledge in the form of situational awareness. They are your experience base telling you something worth listening too. Klein focuses on how these intuitions guide actions, but it's also worth thinking about how these intuitions might be unpacked into a deeper, more explicit, understanding of a problem.]

One of the primary reasons that thinking together is hard is that it requires both that we think in public and that we think collaboratively. I suspect that thinking together fails at least as often because we don't know how to think in public as it does because we don't know how to do it collaboratively. Further I think that order matters. You need to learn how to think in public first. Then you can work on developing skills to think collaboratively.

Thinking in public is a precursor skill to thinking collaboratively that's been ignored. We want to get to the fun stuff (ooh, brainstorming!) and skip over the hard part.

Weblogs make the hard part easier. They make it possible and permissible to go public with an idea while you're still working it out. Their structure of time-ordered, generally short, posts feels less intimidating than having to produce a finished, completely worked out, properly structured report. Their organized, permanent, structure of archived posts give you something to go back to and to build on. Pulling it all together under the umbrella of an individually identified place makes it visible and sharable with others without forcing it on anyone. Finally, syndicating the results via RSS makes it available to those who are interested in a way that enables dialog without demanding dialog.

Thinking in public – knowledge management with a small k

Reminder. Paul McCann asked me to remind him (and other Chicago-area bloggers) when the upcoming presentations by Jim McGee and David Weinberger were scheduled, and this morning I got a message from Eric Sinclair renewing the plea for that reminder. So here we go: Jim will come to Seabury on Thursday, April 10, to talk about sharing knowledge via blogs (the title of his presentation will be, “Thinking in public — Can you do that? Is it safe? Is it wise? Weblogs in organizations.” He’ll be in the Seabury Lounge, I think, and the presentation will start at 7:30. David Weinberger… [AKMA’s Random Thoughts]

I'm flattered that AKMA was kind enough to sandwich me between David Weinberger and Ben and Mena Trott who presented last month. Hanging out in such company has to be a good thing.

I'll be sharing some thoughts, observations, and questions about how weblogs are beginning to be used as one more tool to help make knowledge work more effective inside organizations. The perspective I've been poking at for some time now is what happens when you begin to revisit the idea of knowledge management from the point of view of making individual knowledge workers more effective.

Think of it as knowledge management with a small k. The wave of solutions offered under the rubric of knowledge management prior to weblogs was largely driven by vendors with a centralized, top-down, organization centric view of the problem. At best they were attempting to solve the problem of knowledge management (whatever that might be) from the perspective of the organization, not the perspective of the knowledge workers doing the knowledge work. A good portion of the resistance to these knowledge management efforts is sensible resistance to extra work that has no demonstrable payoff for me as a knowledge worker.

I started experimenting with weblogs and precursors to weblogs several years ago and began to publish a public weblog about 18 months ago. I've found the notion of weblog as backup brain to be a powerful metaphor for finding the value of weblogs to the work of an individual knowledge worker within an organization. 

One of the central things that occurs with this strategy is that you have to start learning how to think in public. That certainly can feel like a risky thing to do. In some organizational settings it might well be risky. But I'm increasingly convinced that developing that skill will be an important aspect of what organizations must learn to do to survive and thrive in today's world. If you're going to be near Evanston next Thursday night, do drop in. If you're lucky AKMA's wife will provide molasses cookies again. Then it won't matter whether I have anything useful to say or not.

Multitasking might make you stupid, but that doesn't mean you have a choice

Sue Shellenbarger: Multitasking makes you stupid, studies say.

Sue Shellenbarger: People who multitask are less efficient than those who focus on one project at a time, says a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. The time lost switching among tasks increases with the complexity of the tasks, according to the research by [David Meyer, psychology professor at the University of Michigan] and others. (Via Frank Patrick.)

[Tesugen.com]

Sure it does, but does that mean you really have a choice? The research is intriguing. What I’d like to see next is some advice about making good choices about what and when to multitask and when and how to go after flow. The research only seems to go after the first part of the problem, which is to establish how much and what kind of degradation you might expect. The interesting part of the problem is how to get better at including multitasking appropriately in your repetoire of work strategies. Cause I sure don’t expect to get back to a world where I have the unfettered freedom to always single thread.

Email as a useful hybrid of oral and literate thinking

Back to the Oral Tradition Through Skywriting at the Speed of Thought. This is a light romp through the history of thought and communication, looking at the present evolution of email as representative of an oral tradition that has its origins in communual story-telling and modern incarnations as transitory as sky-writing. But, as the author reminds us, email (and online discussions) can also acquire the permanence of books, giving us the best of both worlds. True, scholars haven’t taken to the new forms the way they might. But they will. By Stevan Harnad, The Future of Web Publishing, February, 2003 [Refer][Research][Reflect] [OLDaily]

This is a line of thought that hadn’t occurred to me before. One of the books that’s influenced by thinking was Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. Ong discusses how oral and literate cultures think differently because of the way that oral and written speech differ. This piece suggests that one of the interesting dimensions of email is the way in which if combines elements of both.

One reason that may be important is to understand how different levels of management in organizations are biased in favor of different modes of expression and, if you buy Ong’s arguments, different modes of thinking. One hypothesis I’ve played around with is that senior managers and executives are fundamentally oral thinkers, while their technical staffs are literate thinkers. That may be a contributor to the problems in implementing new technologies in organizations.

Sharing knowledge with yourself

Stephen Downes responds to my recent post on weblogs and passion with the following observation:

Weblog tools are just another input device. Great. With a lousy search and user interface. Weblogs get data into the system, but that’s never been the problem with knowledge management: no, the problem is in using the data in any meaningful way. Will weblogs help with this? Not until something thinks seriously about the other end of the equation, thinks of the harried user rather than the inspired blog writer. [OLDaily]

While I agree that the current generation of weblog tools have some serious limits in terms of search and user interface, I disagree with his contention about where the problems lie in knowledge management systems. In the organizations where I’ve struggled to make knowledge management work, one of the fatal flaws has been the notion that knowledge management is somebody else’s problem. The silver bullet is out there in someone else’s head and “if only that lazy SOB had recorded the knowledge in the first place, then I’d be sitting fat and happy.”

I’ve concluded that one of the root problems with knowledge management is that I’m that lazy SOB. Until I start to do a better job of managing my own knowledge, why should I expect anyone else in the organization to do so? Weblogs are the first tool I’ve found that start me on the process of making my own knowledge more useful to me.

Here’s where the explicit vs. tacit distinction made so often in knowledge management discussions is misleading. Sure, the knowledge that has become so central to my work that I don’t have to think about it is a source of great power, is difficult to capture, and more difficult yet to share. But a huge amount of the knowledge important to me remains explicit and never ends up making the cut to tacit. That doesn’t mean I can’t make it a more useful resource to me.

Here’s a little test you can run on your own PC. Search for all the document files, spreadsheets, or powerpoint presentations stored on your machine. How many have a filename something along the lines of “final draft xx.doc” where xx is some number between 1 and 10? Can you tell what’s inside that file without opening it? If there was a diagram you used in a presentation last year that you wanted to use tomorrow, how many presentations would you have to open and scan before you found it?

The problem with getting more leverage out of knowledge work isn’t somewhere out there in the organization. It’s looking back at me in the mirror every morning. Worse than that, it’s that lazy slob I was looking at in the mirror six months ago who was too busy then to put a halfway decent name on a file or save that really great diagram as its own file.

What does this have to do with weblogs? Weblogs put the emphasis where I believe it belongs; on the individual knowledge worker. It encourages them to begin thinking about their own knowledge work more explicitly and systematically. It helps them realize that they are the problem and the solution. You have to learn how to share knowledge with yourself over time before you can begin to share it effectively with others.