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December 26, 2005

Was Drucker Wrong?

OK, I will confess that this entire posting was originally motivated by self-interest: I checked the Amazon sales rank for my book Thinking for a Living, and found that it had fallen over the past few days from the respectable levels it occupied for the first couple of months it was out. Most authors, of course, are semi-obsessed by their Amazon rankings; I get less so with each book I write.

But the apparent fact that my tome is not going to compete with Who Moved My Cheese at the top of the best-seller lists made me wonder just how important it really is to make knowledge workers more productive and effective.

I also had a chat a few days ago with a Wall Street Journal reporter who is researching an article on knowledge worker productivity. He asked me if the subject is important. I said yes, and mouthed the old Peter Drucker chestnut that “making knowledge work productive is the greatest economic challenge of this century.” He asked, “Well, was Drucker wrong?”

Mon dieu! How could he possibly ask such a question, particularly since the great man only passed a few weeks ago?

In order to quickly deflect such a heresy, I spewed out a few more clichés, such as “Knowledge workers are the key to growth and innovation in their organizations,” and “Unless our knowledge workers are the most productive and effective on earth, their jobs will flow to the parts of the world where they do it better.”

Then he asked the killer question. “Are companies doing anything about this?” Again, I spouted the names of a few companies that have actually attempted to make life better for their knowledge workers: Intel, Capital One, Novartis, Cisco…OK, it’s a pretty short list. If improving knowledge worker productivity is so important, why aren’t more companies doing something about it?

There are some good reasons, i.e.:
1. It’s hard.
2. It takes a fair amount of up-front investment.
3. Knowledge workers, like Greta Garbo, like to be left alone.

But these seem insufficient as rationales for doing little or nothing to make knowledge workers more successful at work (other than providing them with their very own legal copy of Microsoft Office, a PC, and a telephone with voice mail). I am frankly puzzled why more of this isn’t happening. If you know the answer, you will be giving me (and the world) a great holiday present if you feel generous enough to share it.

Posted by Tom Davenport at 05:16 PM | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBacks (2)

December 21, 2005

Think You’re Thinking Outside the Box? Sorry.

There are a lot of business-language clichés I’d be happy never to hear again. I don’t care for the phrases that confuse people with computer technology (“Let’s talk about that off-line.” “I don’t have the bandwidth to take that on.”). Or the tendency to use a ponderous phrase when one straightforward word will do (saying “in the July timeframe” instead of “in July”). Or those ugly “-ize” verbs (“incentivize;” “operationalize;” “productize”).

But maybe my least favorite phrase is “think outside the box.” It bothers me partly because I’ve heard it used 11,580 times in the past 10 years. (I’m exaggerating, but I’ve heard it a lot.) Also because people who talk about “thinking outside the box” never will. If they could, they wouldn’t use a tired cliché to talk about originality. When advertisers parody a phrase (“Think outside the bun”), it’s time to move on.

What does any of this have to do with organizational knowledge? Well, a lot of knowledge sharing happens through language that not only communicates a certain quantity of information about something but that intrigues, inspires, and tells you that the speaker is thoughtful, knowledgeable, and alert. Good knowledge-sharing language generates energy and thoughtfulness. The dead language of clichés that you’ve heard a hundred times before puts people’s minds to sleep (and sometimes their bodies, too).

So what’s the take-away? Net-net, implementing cliché avoidance 24/7 is a win-win for speakers and listeners alike. If you disagree, let’s take it up off-line, when I’ve got some more bandwidth.

Posted by Don Cohen at 12:54 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBacks (1)

December 14, 2005

Knowledge Needed; Access Denied

I recently spent an hour or so talking about the value of personal networks as sources of knowledge with a group of sixty project managers. During the discussion, I described various uses of the technique (formerly known as “social network analysis”) that Rob Cross of the University of Virginia now calls “organizational network analysis.”

We were not in a setting where it made sense to do a network analysis (and I don’t have enough experience to do one well), but I wanted people to think about their own networks. Taking a cue from some of Rob’s categories, I asked them to jot down the names of people they went to for knowledge and information, people they went to for advice, people who added energy to their networks and people who sucked energy out of them. And I asked them to list people who were inaccessible but had knowledge they needed to do their work. It was a valuable exercise; I recommend it.

This last category generated the most discussion. About a third of the sixty project managers said, Yes, there were people who had important knowledge they were unable to get access to when they needed it. I asked them how many of those inaccessible people were their supervisors or others above them in the hierarchy.

The answer won’t surprise you: all of them.

They told stories that are probably familiar to anyone who has worked in a large organization: projects suffered from the absence of vital information on budgets or changes in direction that only unavailable bosses possessed; they needed but couldn’t get the opinion of an experienced senior manager on a critical element of the work; they needed an approval but couldn’t get on their leaders’ calendars. Emails requesting a meeting or information went unanswered.

The result: projects ground to a halt or drifted off in what eventually proved to be the wrong direction.

We’re not talking about finding time for a long meeting; in most cases, people needed only ten minutes or so of their bosses’ attention, and still couldn’t get it. One project manager said he dealt with the dilemma by coming to work early and standing outside the boss’s office to waylay him before he retreated behind the protective barrier of his secretary.

Sometimes work place design helps avoid this problem. Senior managers in open offices near people who work for them (rather than on mahogany row behind a phalanx of executive assistants) can be available for these quick, essential exchanges. A (very) few leaders set aside “office hours” for just such interactions.

But the difficulties remain. If you have stories of similar problems or good ideas for solving them, let me know.

Posted by Don Cohen at 01:42 PM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBacks (0)

December 12, 2005

The Yule Punch-inspired KM Discussion

I went to a local holiday party last week and as usual I was asked what I do, etc.

I usually give a bland answer to these sort of inquries but having had my share of Yule punch I actually responded that I studied knowledge in all its varied forms, etc. I was then asked an interesting question from a professor of mathematics that was new to me and that you might find interesting, too. He asked me what word I would use to replace the word knowledge in my talks, research, etc. if for some reason I couldn’t use the word ever again.

I gave this some thought and came up with UNDERSTANDING. However thinking about this point is a good way to get discussions going in seminars, classes etc. when you get blank looks in asking students to say what they mean by the word knowledge.

I also began to think what could replace information. I would choose MESSAGE but once again there are many contenders for the role.

Any suggestions?

Posted by Larry Prusak at 09:59 AM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBacks (0)

December 06, 2005

The Four Names for Knowledge

One of the problems of actually doing knowledge-management-type-of-things is the fact that the English language has only one word for knowledge.

The Romance languages have at least two, as does German and Slavic. But the best example of how a culture uses language to distinguish the varied types of knowledge that we use in the world is Classical Greek.

As described in a mis-titled but excellent book, Tacit Knowledge in Organizations, by Phillipe Baumard, Aristotle and Plato had at least four words at their disposal to discuss what we make do with only one overused word.

The Greeks had Episteme, from which we derive Epistomolgy. This word meant repeatable rules, codified and universal. In other words, Science. Then they had Techne, from which we get technology. This term meant something like craft, or capability The though being that person so endowed would be able to DO something that was neither pure thought or pure manual activity.A third term was Phronesis, which we would probably understand as emotional intelligence, or social skills. Its what good managers, therapists, and teachers have,. A very interesting fourth term was Metis, which has no current term but is closest to savvy, cunning or street smart.

The Greeks mention that Ulysses had this skill, and one of my heroes, Isaiah Berlin, wrote this is what great politicians like Churchill and Roosevelt (whom Berlin knew) had-the almost intuitive skill to rapidly understand a difficult situation and make sense of it.

Some of you may think that this is just hair-splitting or worse- after all- information, knowledge, data, aren’t they really all the same? Or close to the same?

Well, no they are not.

And I have seen (no exaggeration here) tens of billions of dollars wasted on building knowledge "systems" or operations that were supposed to make an organizations knowledge more effective or efficient but really only reformatted data or documents. Imagine if the poor executives who build these monuments to futility had read the Classics in college instead of engineering? Perhaps they might have saved their organizations from such worthless efforts?

Posted by Larry Prusak at 11:50 PM | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBacks (0)

December 03, 2005

The Backlash to Process

It was inevitable, I suppose. After several decades of largely positive palaver about the power of process, a backlash is beginning to emerge. Several journalists and bloggers have begun to argue that process is injurious to organizational health and innovation.

Erin White of the Wall Street Journal, for example, reported on September 19, 2005 that companies are beginning to become disenchanted with Six Sigma and process management—particularly where innovation and new product development processes are concerned.

On John Hagel’s blog, he and John Seely Brown argue that "for the past couple of decades, the primary focus of IT investment in the enterprise has been to standardize and automate business processes. Over the next couple of decades, the real opportunity will be to amplify practices by supporting collaboration on demand – helping people both within and across enterprises to connect more flexibly and richly with each other around real business needs."

In a somewhat silly blog entry entitled “The End of Process,” Socialtext's Ross Mayfield argues that, “Because of constant change in our environment, processes are outdated the immediately after they are designed (sic, but you get the idea).” He goes on to say that connected knowledge workers can simply organize their own groups and processes at will.

First let me say that the devotees of process don’t have much to fear.

Process isn’t going away, at least for the vast majority of situations to which it’s been applied. For any sort of structured work activity, processes are the key to efficiency, quality, and efficient use of IT. For business activities like manufacturing, order management, accounting, and customer service, to eschew process is to eschew performance.

But the process malcontents do have a purpose and a point. It’s actually healthy to have a debate about how much process orientation to have in business, and where it should be applied. The idea that the same approaches to process management worked well for all businesses and all activities within them was never a good one. Of course, it’s just as nutty to argue that we don’t need processes at all as it was to argue that process was good for everything. The hard-core “enterprise engineers” and the advocates of self-organizing work are equally unhelpful.

The backlash to process generally focuses on the negative implications for innovation. This is both wrong and valid. It’s wrong when applied to process innovation. Companies that do process management right can certainly incorporate opportunities for participation by those who do the work, and continuous innovation in the process. Just ask Toyota, which has mastered both processes and process innovation.

But process critics are valid when the focus their attack on applying process to product and service innovations. We can call these activities processes, and we can try to impose structure on them. But innovation activities in business will always be less structured than other business domains, and harder to measure and automate. If we impose too much of a process orientation on these activities and people, we’ll either drive down the level of innovation or get frustrated. Cisco, for example, is a very process-oriented firm, but it has relaxed some of its orientation to process in its new product development activities.

The key to establishing a balance, as John Seely Brown and several of his former colleagues at Xerox PARC have argued for a while, is to mix process with practice. Process is an abstract structure for how work should ideally be done; practice is the day-to-day way in which work is actually done. Process involves respect for methods, measures, and organizational attempts at improvement; practice involves respect for smart people and localized decisionmaking. Process without practice is unrealistic; practice without process is chaotic.

In structured business activities such as manufacturing, we need more process and less practice; in less structured knowledge work domains like innovation, we simply need less process and more practice. To admit that a mixture is necessary, and to work at determining the appropriate balance, is the only reasonable approach.

Extreme arguments in either direction are counterproductive at best.

Posted by Tom Davenport at 04:45 PM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBacks (1)