Intangible objects and abstraction at work : the need for a case centric environment

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Summary : If we try to understand what work is actually in the knowledge economy, it appears that it’s mainly about handling, gathering and organizing intangible objects to deliver a tangible result. Many tools are provided to give these objects a material existence on our screens to make their manipulation easier. At the end, a dual conclusion emerges : not only the skills that are necessary to this kind of work are seldom acquired or even taught but tools, as they exist today, make the situation getting even worse by splitting the matter between tools and dividing employees’ attention. Employees spend more attention connecting pieces of information together than solving problems. The shift from a tool centric to a case centric environment is necessary.

We all know that everything that has to do with work models transformation, collaborative practices, new value creation creations is a matter of anything but technology. Solution is to be found in HR, management, sense making rather than in lines of code. But, by endlessly repeating that technology comes second (or even third), we may miss some essential points.

The nature of work is evolving and requires new skills. In other words, it’s getting more and more about gathering resources together, put them in context and leverage them than than about delivering preset processes with predefined resources. To do so, employees need to handle “objects”. This is a vague word chosen in purpose : it refers to more or less entities like pieces of knowledge, information, data from a customer case or elements of context of a given case, people who own other relevant objects. In fact, rather than “while working”.

All these operations, this conceptual gathering of abstract entities is sometimes done by a single person but, most of times, in a collaborative or participative way.

An objective analysis of the situation as it can be observed in any organization any day makes us learn two lessons :

• Employees are generally uncomfortable with this kind of work.

One of the major issue for knowledge workers is that, even without considering management and organizational issues, they are not well-off at all to handle and gather abstract entities to deliver something concrete. Knowledge workers are not a concept : they are more and more numerous in the workplace and knowledge work is also a part of the work of people who perform tasks that are not knowledge work at first sight. On the other hand, that’s not because one becomes a knowledge worker when entering the workplace that he has the necessary skills . Very few employees have at least a part of the skills that will be essential in 2020 according to the University of Phoenix.

Blaming employees is useless, but acquiring those skills is a key stake at both an educational, training and self development level and seems totally underrated today.

 

• Making objects tangible makes things even more difficult.

 

To help employees, things have been done to materialize these objects, make them tangible, so users would be able to see them, work them etc.. That’s the role of information systems and lots of software. The least we can say it’s that the result is quite deceptive, to such an extent that the few people that are able to combine, articulate and work these objects in their head feel lost at the very moment they’re given tools supposed to make it easier. At first sight, we could thing that giving objects a visual representation should have helped employees, but it does not. Data from the problem, from the case, are “somewhere” (in a project management tool, CRM or anything else). Relevant information to handle and solve it are scattered in many tools, each of them being about a given kind of tool. As for non stored information (90% of the global amount), employees need to find the person who own them…and use another tool to do so. They need to locate expertise, most of time in the HR system, that are not supposed to be shared. To end, add that the exchanges, the conversations that tie all these things together, are in email boxes, instant messaging systems, collaborative spaces where not everyone is.

If it’s difficult for a many, if not most of users to combine information and perform this work “in their head”, tools makes things even more laborious because even if objects can be visualized, they can’t be physically combined on screens what prevent employees to have a global view of their work and what they need to get things done. How can we imagine that without adapted tools that can work jointly, that are easy to use, knowledge craftsmen (because it’s more about craft than industrial work) can do a good work ? While attention should be used to solve problems, it’s used to link the content of ten or even more windows.

As long as it won’t be possible to move from a tool centric environment (cases to be handled are divided into x tools) to a case centric one where the focus is on the case and the rest (objects, functionalities) aggregates, gathers and connects around, employee’s work will be needlessly complicated.

For used, pieces of information has to be gathered and displayed according to the relationship that exists between them in the context of a given case and not according to their type.

So the challenge has two sides : on the one hand the need for acquiring new skills, on the other the reinvention of the digital workspace. There is no way to choose between one or the other : both are mandatory.

 

  • But please lets not call this project based work