Thursday, August 4, 2011

More Structure in Knowledge Work

A while back Thomas Davenport wrote an interesting McKinsey report 'Rethinking knowledge work: A strategic approach'. It's a thought-provoking piece. It goes against the trend to say knowledge workers should be left alone, they're smart and know what to do. Davenport says we should provide more structure to knowledge work. Providing knowledge workers "well-defined context of tasks and deliverables".
It's time for companies to develop a strategy for knowledge work - one that not only provides a clearer view of the types of information that workers need to do their jobs but also recognizes that the application of technology across the organization must vary considerably, according to the task different knowledge workers perform.
Davenport clearly also looks at the down-side of the free-access model for knowledge work. Are all knowledge workers really up to their task? Davenport clearly says 'no'. There are different levels of knowledge work that we should be open to. He relates to the case-management systems. "Case management can create value whenever some degree of structure or process can be imposed upon information-intensive work. Until recently, structured-provision approaches have been applied mostly to lower-level information tasks that are repetitive, predictable, and thus easier to automate."

I think Davenport is onto something here. What I see is that the IT would like to automate everything in heavy ERP-like tools. Everything is a process, everything can be structured, everything is digital, they seem to say. We know this drives knowledge workers crazy. What are they to do when they run into an exception? What happens when the process changes?

So, there's room between free-access tools to support knowledge work and tools that manufacturing-esk processes. I think the IT Flower shows this well. So, Davenport is wondering: where are the tools that support transactional work? Work that is not completely structured or unstructured. He says "the greatest potential for productivity improvements involve bringing more structured knowledge to workplaces and processes". And: "The key issue ... is to decide which aspects of the relevant process could benefit from more structured technologies and processes and which should be left largely untouched."

I'm not sure if "the greatest potential" is there. I think there's also huge potential in getting knowledge workers to use social tools in the organization. And use them productively. But there definitely is potential here. There's not only potential here for certain types of work, like someone working on files in the government as opposed to a PhD researcher. There's also potential for the knowledge worker who's work consists of different types of tasks. More and less structured work. The big productivity gain is helping knowledge workers switch between these tasks, I think.

What are your thoughts on Davenport's ideas? How does it relate to your daily practice?
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