Relatively ancient knowledge
At lunch today, catching up with some people from the Panoptic team, I found out that someone from the information retrieval community I've not seen in years is in town tomorrow. I'm looking forward to speaking with him, and hearing what's been going on in his life and research. Had I not gone to lunch, I doubt I'd have ever known. Once again, a serendipitous discussion, not mediated by any form of technology, will allow me to expand my horizons.
At Synop, we're currently trying to expand our horizons a little too. Expanding a horizon is a peculiar concept - I assume it is related to the practice at sea of climbing up a mast to see a greater distance than you can from sea level. I wonder if the phrase is in use in any other language but English.
What we've been doing is looking beyond our historical strengths in content management systems (their construction, deployment and use) to more generalised consulting and tools to assist knowledge workers. In the modern setting, climbing up the mast means taking time out from the daily list of tasks which must be completed to do some research (on the Web).
Some of the questions we've had to ask ourselves are:
- Will organisations pay for their knowledge workers to use more productive tools?
- How can you sell fuzzy concepts of improving knowledge work(er) productivity?
- What would you do to even measure the benefits for an organisation in using such tools?
- What organisations employ knowledge workers? How many in each organisation?
- How much of their work is about the gathering and consumption of information, how much about publishing their insights, and how much is about the creation, synthesis and processing of new ideas and conglomerations of existing ideas in new ways but for internal (as in, inside a person's head) use only?
So given these questions all revolve around knowledge workers (the users of our tools and services) it seemed best to understand first who/what a knowledge worker is/does. Using my new favourite search engine (interface) - A9 - I went looking for "knowlege worker". In what would be considered relatively ancient knowledge (but is a mere decade old), I came across Peter F. Drucker's 1994 Godkin Lecture on Knowledge Work and Knowledge Society - The Social Transformations of this Century. Drucker, who coined the term "knowledge worker", writes lucidly and knowledgeably about the shifts within the nature of work over the last 100 years, and the implications for the future. That it's ten years on since he gave this talk hasn't changed any of the fundamental remarks he made.
Drucker's position on a knowledge worker (an educated person) is one who has learned how to learn and goes on learning throughout their lifetime either in or out of formal education systems.
What does that mean for society? Sometimes it's best just to quote other people's words, rather than trying to reformulate them - this is one such time:
In the knowledge society, knowledge basically exists only in application.
The central work force in the knowledge society will, therefore, consist of highly specialized people. In fact, it is a mistake to speak of generalists. What we mean by that term, increasingly, will be people who have learned how to acquire additional specialties, and especially to acquire rapidly the specialized knowledge needed for them to move from one kind of work and job to another. But generalists in the sense in which we used to talk of them are becoming dilettantes rather than educated people.
That the knowledge in the knowledge society has to be highly specialized to be productive implies two new requirements: 1. knowledge workers work in teams; and 2. knowledge workers have to have access to an organization which, in most cases, means that knowledge workers have to be employees of an organization.
What does this mean for us?
First, knowledge workers are going to work in teams, and they are going to work inside or affiliated with organisations. Most of their organisation's work will be for other organisations. We should try and sell to teams, not to organisations, because organisations don't change rapidly, but teams change all the time and generate lots of information and knowledge very quickly, with a consequent need for the team's knowledge workers to stay in the loop with it all.
Second, generalists (in Drucker's new characterisation of them) are the people who have the most to gain from tools which make their assimilation of information and knowledge more productive. Specialists (who are happy to stay in one speciality) have much less use for these tools, as they generally know most of what they need to know already, and are highly connected in professional networks or communities of practice to keep themselves informed about important changes.
Do the tools we provide matter very much then?
... in the knowledge society the employees, that is knowledge workers, again own the tools of production. …
Increasingly, the true investment in the knowledge society is not in machines and tools. It is in the knowledge of the knowledge worker. Without it, the machines, no matter how advanced and sophisticated, are unproductive.
In the knowledge society the most probable assumption and certainly the assumption on which all organizations have to conduct their affairs is that they need the knowledge worker far more than the knowledge worker needs them.
So in other words, no and yes. Any tool itself we may provide is meaningless, without a knowledge worker sitting behind it, absorbing information and creating their own. The knowledge worker might be equally happy with a different set of tools. An organisation however would dearly like to make sure their knowledge workers can be as productive as possible while working, even if they only benefit while they can keep their knowledge workers (happy). Thus we need to help teams make the case to their organisation that improving their productivity is valuable.
How can teams accomplish this?
One final conclusion: Because the knowledge society perforce has to be a society of organizations, its central and distinctive organ is management.
… the essence of management is not technique or procedure. The essence of management is to make knowledges productive. Management, in other words, is a social function. And, in its practice, management is truly a liberal art.
Which brings it all back to the people once again. From a management point of view, look after them, reward them, encourage them, make the most of the opportunities they present and try to help them help you. And from the team point of view, it's exactly the same. Even management are people.