Knowledge work and productivity

I’m rereading one of those classic Peter Drucker articles that make everything seem so straightforward and obvious. This one is from the Winter 1999 issue of the California Management Review and is titled “Knowledge-Worker Productivity: The Biggest Challenge.” (CMR, V.41, #2, Winter 1999, pp79-94) If it is typical Drucker, the rest of the world will start catching up with him in another couple of years. For those of us in the midst of knowledge work related topics, better to start paying attention now.

His essential thesis is that focusing on the productivity of knowledge work will drive economic success in the 21st century in exactly the same fashion that manual work productivity drove 20th century economies.

Some selected observations from Drucker.

  • “Whenever we have looked at any job – no matter how many thousands of years it has been performed – we have found that the traditional tools are wrong for the task.”
  • “What Taylor saw when he actually looked at work violated everything poets and philosophers had said about work from Hesiod and Virgil to Karl Marx. They all celebrated “skill.” Taylor showed that in manual work there is no such thing. There are only simple, repetitive motions. What makes them more productive is knowledge, that is, the way the simple, unskilled motions are put together, organized, and executed. In fact, Taylor wa the first person to apply knowledge to work”
  • “Making knowledge workers more productive requires change in basic attitude, while making the manual workers more productive only required telling the worker how to do the job. Furthermore, making knowledge workers more productive requires changes in attitude not only on the part of the individual knowledge worker, but on the part of the whole organization.”

Drucker identifies six factors that determine knowledge-worker productivity that I paraphrase as follows:

  • Definition of the task
  • Required autonomy of knowledge workers
  • Continuing innovation
  • Continuous learning and continuous teaching
  • Qualilty of outputs as signature requirement. Quantity is irrelevant until a quality standard exists
  • Knowledge worker as asset not cost

Lots of good material to chew on here. I’ll be revisiting this and pushing on it in the next few weeks.

Cruciverbalists congregate

For Gloria.

The 2003 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament is coming March 14-16. You can either participate in person by going to Stamford, Connecticut for the weekend, or play at home on your own time. If you’re a confirmed or aspiring cruciverbalist, you should check this out — the puzzles are great and the competition is light-hearted. (Will Shortz (right), director of the tournament and editor of the New York Times crossword puzzle, was recently interviewed on 60 Minutes.)” [MetaFilter]

[The Shifted Librarian]

We usually make it through Thursday’s puzzle in the Times and manage to finish most Sunday puzzles. I don’t think I’ve ever managed to finish the puzzle on Saturdays.

b-blogs = k-logs

b-Blogs: The Next Level of Collaboration.

Clickz; Meet the B-Blog

Kathleen Goodwin discusses the implications of weblogs as business tools. From a marketing perspective she points out the business benefits such as customer dialog forums, positioning those within your company as niche industry experts, and providing open communication with business partners. The beauty of the weblog is that it is extremely cheap compared to any toher form of collaboration. But, does it have enough features to do the job?

[MarketingFix]

Useful overview, although Goodwin’s b-blog seems little different from the k-log (knowledge log) concept developed by John Robb over a year ago. Not sure what we gain by introducing yet another ugly neologism. Here’s Goodwin’s key definition:

B-blogs can offer organizations a platform where information, data, and opinion can be shared and traded among employees, customers, partners, and prospects in a way previously impossible: a two-way, open exchange. Companies can (and should) encourage self-publishing from all corners of the organization. Employees who want to post information should no longer have to go through the corporate site’s marketing gatekeepers to post. Suddenly, the best thinkers in a company will have a digital voice they can manage and control themselves.

Sounds like a k-log to me. Of course, that’s the usual challenge in a new and rapidly developing area. Everybody’s trying to figure out what’s going on and trying to get their vocabulary to stick.

Research universities and the culture of ideas

MIT Technology Review Creating a Culture of Ideas. “Not so many years ago, Bell Labs conducted so much research it could easily house some very high-risk programs, including the so-called blue-sky thinking that led to information theory and the discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation. But the world benefited, and sometimes AT&T did too. Now, Bell Labs is a shadow of its former self, subdivided several times through AT&T’s 1984 divestiture and subsequent split into Lucent, NCR, and the parent firm. Moreover, it is not alone [snowdeal.org | conflux]

First of a series of posts over at snowdeal focused on the corporate side of the R&D Equation. In this first piece, Nicholas Negroponte discusses the changing role of corporate R&D labs, the reasons why America is so innovative, and why research universities are likely to take on a more critical role in seeding technology development:

More than ever before, in the new new economy, research and innovation will need to be housed in those places where there are parallel agendas and multiple means of support. Universities, suitably reinvented to be interdisciplinary, can fit this profile because their other product line, besides research, is people. When research and learning are combined, far greater risks can be taken and the generation of ideas can be less efficient. Right now, only a handful of U.S. universities constitute such research universities. More will have to become so. Universities worldwide will have to follow.

Worth wandering over to snowdeal and following up the other links in this series.

Rational and organizational minds

Matt Blaze: “Although a few people have confused my reporting of the vulnerability (in master-keyed locks) with causing the vulnerability itself, I can take comfort in a story that Richard Feynman famously told about his days on the Manhattan project. Some simple vulnerabilities (and user interface problems) made it easy to open most of the safes in use at Los Alamos. He eventually demonstrated the problem to the Army officials in charge. Horrified, they promised to do something about it. The response? A memo ordering the staff to keep Feynman away from their safes.” [Hack the Planet]

It’s anecdotes like these that fuel my continuing interest in knowledge and organizations. I’m especially attracted to run-ins between the rational engineering mind and the bureaucratic mind. I blogged about this lock-story earlier, but this offers some more insight.

I started my professional life firmly in the rational engineer camp. I actually went back to school for my Ph.D. in order to understand why those !@# users weren’t using the brilliant systems I was building. That led me into long study of organizational behavior and design. I could never bring myself to treat organizations as totally political systems. For my own sanity, I have to work from the assumption that most people in most organizations are at least trying to do the right, and rational, thing. Figuring out what that might be is sometimes more tricky than others, but it generally gets you somewhere.

Confessions of an RSS bigot

Shifted Librarian. Shifted Librarian: “The Corante crew just doesn’t want to give up the RSS feeds, so I don’t read a single Corante blog.” [Scripting News]’

Yes, I’m an RSS bigot as well. And yes, I know that I could create my own feed using something like RSS Distiller as John Robb points out. But as my own support staff, I scarcely have time to stay current with the material that already comes into my news aggregator. the time to figure out how to parse a site’s html and generate a reasonable feed generally isn’t worth it.

I’m sure that the material in the Corante blogs is excellent. That’s not the issue; so is all the other material that comes to me via RSS. It’s about managing my poor, limited, attention which needs all the help it can get. For my selfish purposes, the more material that flows into my news aggregator the better. And better still if I can get full posts instead of teasers. I’ve yet to find a blog post that read better in context than it did in my plain aggregator. More often than not, it’s the other way round. In my aggregator I don’t have to fight with tiny gray type on dark backgrounds or some other nonsense that gets in the way of the ideas.

Am I missing something I might otherwise enjoy and benefit from? Possibly. Am I losing any sleep over it? No.

Writing posts from Radio’s outliner

A Minor bug in my outline post renderer from yesterday was revealed in my previous post. Nothing major, but the renderer was not properly closing off the unordered list. I fixed it and placed the revised script in my gems folder for download. I am sure nobody noticed because I had very few page hits yesterday.

I really, really like writing my posts using Radio’s outliner. It has got me wondering how far I can push this thing. Can I use my table renderer to conveniently drop a table in a post? Could I use rules to drive the layout with the Pike renderer? Is anybody else interested in using Radio‘s outliner to author their posts?

[On The Mark]

Mark Woods has started playing with using “Radio”‘s outliner to post to his weblog and has nicely shared the script for how to do so. As a long time fan of outliners, this is great news for me. I know enough about UserTalk to take advantage of other’s good work. Maybe this will motivate me to see if I can remember what I used to know about scripting and programming.

Certainly makes writing longer pieces a lot easier to contemplate than squeezing into a textbox.

Clear thinking on intellectual property

More wise words from David Reed.

The Intellectual Property Meme [SATN]

It won’t be long before it is accepted that everything you learn from
experience on the job is the “property” of your employer, just as they
claim ownership of your notebooks, and every creative thought you have, the
contents of every phone call you make (from your office), and every
keystroke you type on your computer. When they can download your brain,
and wipe it clean, you’ll be required to when you change jobs.

You can help stop this. Don’t ever use the words “intellectual
property”. You can say patents, copyrights, trademarks – those are more
well-defined terms, and if Congress doesn’t pull another Boner (er, Bono),
they are limited and narrowly targeted at a balanced social purpose. The
authors of the Constitution were wary of royal monopolies like patents and
copyrights, but they compromised because there was a reasonable social good
served by *limited* monopolies on things that would pass into the public
domain….

Weblogs are for learners

tellio II : How I Teach and Why It Is So Hard. Quote: “I have tried to convince them that weblogs are the most protean tool for learning ever made. Like a furnace and anvil, a weblog can make most of its own learning tools. It is self-contained yet all-connected. It is portable yet it is rooted. It is an imaginative journal with a lock and key yet it is fearlessly open to modification and criticism. It is self-governing yet is subject to social control. I am almost afraid of what it will do to certain of my students. Tools transform us whether we will or no. What will this do to them? And more to the point, will it, on balance, do more for them?” [Serious Instructional Technology]

Really nice, reflective post on weblogs in teaching environments and the promise they hold for learning coupled with the fears they generate in those who value order over learning.

I’ve been blessed to be able to learn in some of the best academic environments that exist — ones that truly care about learning. Perhaps because of that it’s taken me a bit longer to grasp how tenous the relationship is between classrooms, teachers, and learning. As I’ve spent time now in front of the classroom, I’m much more sanguine about the role of teachers and overly formal curricula (after all ‘curriculum’ comes from the Latin for running around in circles). I like Terry’s advice:

My teaching is very good when I keep a simple pattern in mind: a question or a problem

And that has to start with a learner not a teacher. That’s why we, and so many others, are so keen on weblogs and learning. Weblogs put the responsibility where it is most effective, in the hands of a learner with a question or a problem.