On Designing and Managing Knowledge Work – The Obstacles for a Networked Era

Work Design – From Industrial to Networked Age       (previously, Part I and the first half of Part II)

Horizontal networking often creates dissonance in the vertical enterprise

The vertical structure of knowledge did not foresee the coming of horizontal networking tools now shaping today’s workplace.

In Part I, Inside Knowledge, October 2008, Jon Husband put the history of Taylorism in the Industrial Age in perspective with the absence of an accepted standard for management in the Knowledge Age. Here, Husband sorts through the rhetoric and the developing standards of the Knowledge Age and calls for reorganisation of the organisational structure. We begin here with a repeat of Husband’s last paragraph in Part I.

Today, there’s a lot of chatter about bottom-up versus top-down, the collective wisdom of the organizational crowd, social learning and various related themes.  However, there’s also ongoing dissonance or competition between the methods that create the current defined and structured forms of organized activity and the growing world of hyperlinked flows in which knowledge and meaning are built layer by layer, exchange by exchange (all those hyperlinked interactions that increasingly make up what we call “knowledge work”) as enabled by social computing.  Consequently, continuing to use these methodologies hinders the effective development and use of social learning as it relates to improved on-the-job and organizational performance.

At the heart of the issue is the way work is designed and an organization develops its structure.  A primary tool in designing work and structure is job evaluation (and derivatives like accountability mapping and redundancy analysis).  I don’t mean job evaluation as in assessing job performance – I mean the function that assigns jobs into levels and pay grades based on job “weight” with respect to skill, effort, responsibility and working conditions (those are the fundamental legal criteria for assessing equal pay for work of equal value). Job evaluation methodologies and their underlying assumptions are used to create the skeletal architecture of organizations, the pyramid we all know.

Dissonance in job requirements

In my opinion the methodology of job evaluation is a very useful place to look at some of the likely reasons for the ongoing dissonance and resistance to change we are seeing and will continue to experience.  Job evaluation is what creates pay grades, pay practices, thresholds for entry into bonus schemes, sometimes the criteria for distinguishing between management and non-management jobs, and so on.

Fundamentally, job evaluation (or work measurement in the professional jargon) relies very heavily on the assumption that knowledge is hierarchically structured and, as well, put to use.  It follows that she or he (or the job requirements) who has more of the knowledge —on paper—is she or he who deserves to be “higher up” in the organization.

There are four or five major, well-known methodologies for measuring work.  They all use very similar factors (sometimes described a bit differently semantically, with a couple more or less factors or sub-factors) and they all essentially measure the same thing.

Redesigning work requirements

These fundamental principles of work design need to be examined and re-conceived if the significant power of social computing is ever to be realized.
As an example I will use the Hay Guide Chart Method’s factors, as I know them the best, but I have also worked with the Aiken Plan and the Towers Perrin and Watson Wyatt job evaluation methodologies in the past.

The Hay Method uses the model that all work has three phases—input, throughput and output—and employs three core factors to measure that work:

1.  Know-how – knowledge and skills acquired through education and experience.
2.  Problem-solving – the application of the said knowledge to problems encountered in the process of doing the work.
3. Accountability – the level and type of responsibility a given job has for coordinating, managing or otherwise having impact on an organization’s objectives.

There is a fourth factor called working conditions, but in many cases this is treated almost as a throwaway factor, especially when it comes to knowledge work, as it relates to fumes, chemicals, outdoor exposure, dangerous physical conditions, unusual exogenous stress, etc.

On the face of it, these factors seem eminently reasonable and the method (and the related ones cited above) have, since the early 1950’s, largely served organizations well for designing one or another particular pyramid,.  These methods are put into practice along with other key assumptions from the era when organizations grew and prospered.  The assumptions as articulated are derived from the philosophy of Taylorism (aka scientific management) and the divisions of labour and packaging of tasks that have underpinned the search for efficiency and scale ever since the beginning of the 20th century.

Changing assumptions about knowledge

Just as important is the underlying assumption of these methods about the fundamental nature of knowledge. It assumes knowledge and its acquisition, development and use proceeds slowly and carefully and is based on the official taxonomy of knowledge, a vertical arrangement of information and skills that are derived from the official institutions of our society (Jane Jacobs has a fair bit to say about this in Chapter 3 titled Credentialing vs. Educating in her last book Dark Age Ahead, as do others like John Taylor Gatto and Alfie Kohn, and as does David Weinberger’s Everything Is Miscellaneous – the power of digital disorder).

I’ve offered an example (the paraphrasing of the Hay Method’s semantic scales for measuring a job’s knowledge).  The method’s vertical ordering of Know-How (knowledge) is and the perceived difference between the definition of each level is basically what supports and sustains vertical reporting relationships.

The other two factors (problem-solving and accountability) derive from and reinforce the know-how factor. For example, the rules of job evaluation are such that you cannot have a problem-solving or accountability factor assessment that is of a higher order than the know-how slotting.

The definitions of the know-how (knowledge and skills ) factor levels are paraphrased from the semantic definitions on the actual Hay Guide Chart.

A – Unschooled and unskilled (learns work by rote)
B – Some school, some skill (needs to know how to read & write)
C – Basic high school, routine work (read, write, apply formal routines & communicate effectively)
D – Vocational school, community college, trades, senior administrative (follow & adapt established routines & practices)
E – University graduation, senior trades, managerial (reads books & applies thought to policies and practices)
F – University plus 10 years experience, grad school (puts the books to use)
G – Deep knowledge and expertise (writes the books)
H – God (has others write the books)

But, these methods did not envision or foresee the Web, hyperlinks and the exchanges of information, and the bit-by-bit layering and assembly of knowledge and peer-to-peer negotiation of results and responsibilities we are seeing emerge with greater frequency in this new networked world.

Multiple ways to structure knowledge

We are beginning to understand that the main way we have structured knowledge to date is only one way, and that this way is captive to core assumptions about the ordering and classification of information as created by some of the great thinkers, organizers and classifiers of information and knowledge who helped build up our growing understanding of the world around us (Linnaeus, Darwin, Dewey, etc.).  What we have developed into solid and maybe seemingly unassailable beliefs about knowledge are built upon principles we have inherited from a time when human progress benefited greatly from regular and related discoveries about the world around us, both natural and man-made.

For example, it’s clear that there was a proliferation of written / printed material from the 1600’s through the 1900’s, containing amongst other things much codification of discoveries of the knowledge we use today in a wide range of domains and disciplines. However, more and more of this knowledge is accessible very rapidly on today’s Web in ‘fragments of one’ (nod to Dave Snowden’s assertion that the brain works most effectively with fragments of information) connected by search engines, hyperlinks and a range of easily used publishing platforms. The core assumptions and methodologies about designing and structuring work did not foresee the much-more horizontally and fragmented (but accessible via hyperlinks, search and social exchange) conditions created by networks.

So … now let’s look at how information is shared and exchanged in order to build and use knowledge amongst networked individuals or groups.  The use of knowledge in a networked context is very often much more horizontal, sideways and based on accessibility and collaboration. Much more so than is the use of knowledge in formally structured hierarchies.

Linked knowledge

What we know today is that people with vastly different types and forms of knowledge can be or are linked together for a wide (and potentially limitless) range of purposes (though clearly we are learning quickly about the limits to cognitive attention as lessons in social surplus are offered up to us almost every day).

Addressing Purpose A connects individuals with Skill and Knowledge Set B, Interests and Knowledge Set B, and Connections and Knowledge Set C (and of course the second-order concentric ring of connections each of them brings to any given network in which any of them participate). Each of them subscribes to different sets of feeds and has access to different sources of flows of information than each of the others, but can forward to all those in the on-purpose network anything that comes across their attention that may be pertinent to the purpose at hand.

In the dynamics of attention, flow and circulation of pertinent and relevant information such as this comes the power of social computing that KM practitioners may have been noticing as Web 2.0 tools, service and capabilities become more firmly ensconced in knowledge work in the guise of platforms for collaboration—the domain increasingly called Enterprise 2.0.

I think it is (very) safe to say that problem-solving or accountability is assigned or accepted in that situation based on negotiation of ‘who knows what’ or ‘how to get something done’, and often a call (Tweet, blog post, Skype chat, email) is put out to find and access some additional skill or knowledge that is required, and accountability is negotiated based on the constraints of the purposeful activity at hand.

Any of us familiar with medium to large sized organizations can begin to see, I believe, that the fundamental Taylorist assumption that knowledge is structured vertically and put to use in siloed pyramidic structures and cascaded down to the execution level must be straining at the seams in the increasingly highly-connected social networks in which many people work today.

Social computing – first dissonance, then participative flow ?

Thus, it seems clear that the introduction of wikis, blogs and RSS feeds (and now micro-blogging a la Twitter) for project work, for analysis and planning, for research and development and for other knowledge-intensive work is likely to introduce some reasonable levels of dissonance into the common and accepted organizational dynamics (or “organizational sociology”) of formal, traditionally structured organizations.

This is an area where David Weinberger’s phrase from the Cluetrain Manifesto — “hyperlinks subvert hierarchy” (or expose it, which may be better)—is likely to have real impact.

Take Weinberger’s additional concept of first- , second- , and third-order of order principles for organizing emergent knowledge, combine it with hyperlinks and spaces designed for interaction based on core usability principles and you have a potent recipe for looking at the design of socially-networked work groups.

We’ve been here before … social interaction with other knowledge workers is the foundation of (for example) Fred & Merrilyn Emery’s theory and method of Participative Work Design and is at the heart of socio-technical methodologies for organizational development and change that by and large reflect “getting the whole system into the room”.

Of course, with the arrival of the Internet and the advent of the interactive participative environment that is generally called Web 2.0, “the room” is larger and “the whole system” increasingly does indeed mean everyone, or at least the whole of the organizational crowd that makes up that organization.

Reams have been written about the Internet’s potential to democratize the access to and use of information. It does seem clear that one way or another, the use of the Web, software-as-a-service, and social and cloud computing by organizations that rely on information and knowledge as lifeblood for staying competitive and prospering are the core factors enabling increased collaboration and the growth of distributed networked-based ways of using information to create just-in-time and / or pertinent and useful knowledge.

Vertical knowledge disrupted

Many parts of knowledge work have been routinized and standardized with the ongoing marriages of business processes and integrated enterprise information systems. What has not changed much yet is the adaptation of structures and culture to permit the (easier) building flows of information into pertinent, useful and just-in-time knowledge, or fanning out problem-solving and accountability into networks of connected workers.

Performance objectives, job assignments, compensation arrangements and bonus schemes are generally almost always predicated on causality derived from the vertical arrangements of knowledge and its use in planned and structured initiatives.  As more and more knowledge work is carried out by people communicating and exchanging information using hyperlinks in social networks, where the places knowledge lives and that facilitate its routing to where it is needed, at a point in time, the vertical arrangements for guiding the flows of knowledge are disrupted, if not subverted. Weinberger’s most recent work, Everything Is Miscellaneous, is a beginning treatise on this subject.  Never mind that there is much rhetoric about the need for leadership at all levels, or about the empowerment and democratization of workers in organization X or Y.  Performance management, grade levels and compensation have yet to recognize how work gets done in networked environments and in a networked world.

And if any of you have any experience with performance management programs or in assigning someone in a job to a different grade level, or in making changes to levels of pay or bonus schemes, you know what a minefield any of those can be.

I suspect that it is a strong awareness and felt sense about the perceived challenges to the power and status relationships (the core of yet-to-change organizational structure) that is behind many senior managers’ and executives’ struggles to understand or become enthusiastic about the possibilities of Enterprise 2.0.  There is no Guide Chart yet about networked know-how, problem-solving or accountability.

A Call for Organizational (re)Development

Based on the notions I have explored above (and in previous writings) I believe there is or will be a growing need for what I call eOD (enterprise Organisational Development).

As Enterprise 2.0 initiatives continue to proliferate, I cannot see how the latent dissonance I perceive and have tried to articulate will be avoided. I think it will have to be addressed by using new design principles for knowledge work.

I’ll have more to say about that in a subsequent post.

I’d love to hear what you have to say about this.

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