Organizing knowledge work is solving a lot of problems at once

I’ve been fortunate enough over the past 10 years to hold a number of positions in different areas. From director in consulting with a focus on the future of work, collaboration and collective efficiency to director of operations in an software development company and director of employee experience.

Lots of things that have nothing to do with each other and a bit of a strange sequence?

Not so much.

In fact, I got there for the same reasons and found basically the same problems. Or rather different problems but all with the same root cause.

Different symptoms but one problem

If I had to explain the guideline that made me go from one to the other, I would say quite simply: to make organizations that do not work or do not work well enough work with the conviction that nothing will be solved by focusing on people, processes or technology, but by dealing with all three at the same time. The problem is most often that the three are dealt with in silos.

As for the problems, they are related to innovation, sharing of best practices, efficiency and quality, employee experience, well-being and quality of life at work.

A broad spectrum? Not so much. What I noticed on the consulting side and what was confirmed to me when I moved to internal positions is that they always talk about the same thing but give it a different name and address it differently depending on where you are.

The real causes of mental load

Let’s start with the “People” sphere. When we get to the heart of the employee experience, we realize that the real problem of employees is operational: it is the complication of the organization, the processes, the tools and the management.

This is logical unless you consider that work is a secondary activity for employees in the company. And this problem is even more acute when we talk about knowledge workers, who are often left out of the improvement process because, in the absence of tangible production flows, it is easy not to see the problems or to blame them on the people rather than on the system.

Another problem is the mental load, a major subject in the future of work. But where does it come from?

From the points I have just mentioned to which we can add difficulty in accessing information, information overload, repetitive tasks, double entry of information etc (although this is a complication).

Stress and mental load are caused by friction points in the work and we know what these friction points are, we just named them.

If businesses want to convince themselves that all this is peripheral to work and can be addressed by peripheral initiatives, good for them. But you can’t solve anything by building a spa to take a break between two sessions in the torture room. And the employees have understood this: they have nothing against yoga classes, but they prefer to have the problems that make yoga classes necessary removed.

What do they want? Better access to the information they need, automation of routine, tedious, non-value-added administrative tasks, help with prioritizing tasks,

Engagement Issues? In my opinion, they are only the result of the above: when the company does not address the real problems of its employees, they soon do not want to address those of the company.

Management problems? Of course, too many managers only became managers because it was the only way to advance their careers, but the others were left on their own and COVID just finished to exhaust them. Managing requires predisposition but you don’t become a manager because you have the title. Ask many managers what is expected of them: they don’t even know because they have never been told because it is obvious. Companies have delivery models for everything except for the essential: management.

And to finish with the managers, they are confronted with the reality of knowledge work while their methods, their training, are often inherited from the “world before”. How to control work when it is invisible, made of intangible flows, done at a distance? If we fail to understand this new nature and to be able to control the work, if we fail to trust the means and focus on the result, we control the people even if it means putting them under unbearable pressure.

The heart of the people problem lies in the organization and content of work and it must be admitted that HR is not too well equipped to deal with it.

Productivity and efficiency of knowledge workers

Let’s talk about the field and the operational level. At this level the concerns are a priori different.

The first of these, logically, concerns the efficiency/productivity duo. But here again, a paradigm shift is necessary: the old world solution of adding resources or making them work faster no longer works and, from there, we need to work better. This means everything and nothing.

On an individual level, it means prioritizing your work better. And this starts with a better management of incoming information flows, a sensitive subject because if we are responsible for the way we use communication tools on an individual basis, we are subject to the way they are used on a collective level.

Everything starts with the management and prioritization of information.

This is logically followed by the prioritization of time in relation to tasks and its logical consequence: learning to delegate.

This logically leads to another subject that is often dealt with separately, but which is partly related to information management: meetings. Everyone recognizes that although they are not useless by nature, they are overdone and, above all, poorly done. A meeting is time, information to digest upstream and produce downstream.

Collaboration and cooperation at the heart of the work

Then comes work, production. For solo tasks, it is important to manage and prioritize your time.

But the truth is that we are rarely alone and it becomes a question of collaboration and cooperation. Two terms that are often used interchangeably when they represent two different modalities.

Collaboration involves working together on common tasks and goals. Cooperation implies the division of work into sub-tasks that are carried out individually and without the need for a common goal, as some people are not concerned with anything beyond the completion of their own task.

Cooperation requires a simple technical mastery, collaboration more desire and a stronger human and emotional side.

One is teamwork, the other is parallelized and distributed work.

Whatever the case, it is organized differently depending on the modality.

Collaboration means innovation. Yes, because 80% of what managers call innovation is problem solving and it is usually done in two ways: experience sharing and collective problem solving. And experience sharing can be done in an ad hoc way (bottle in the sea or spontaneous sharing) or through a structured knowledge management approach. The two approaches do not exclude each other but complement each other.

And accessing information often means accessing people who have it, which raises other questions of culture, availability and management. And above all a question of identifying (ideally dynamic) expertise and knowledge.

At the individual level, to enrich the process, a Personal Knowledge Management approach is valuable: managing and documenting everything you see, read and learn outside of the work context saves a lot of time when a problem arises for you or for others.

Which process management for knowledge workers?

And finally, there is the question of processes. From their conception to their execution. As Thomas Davenport’s research paper reminds us, process does not mean rigidity, it just means explaining how things are done with a level of prescription that varies according to the case and the needs.

The problem, which has been noted many times, is that in terms of knowledge work, either we are dealing with a level of rigidity that is almost Taylorian and inappropriate, or we have nothing at all, so the need is in the diversity of situations between the two.

This also leads us to accept another paradigm shift: from a purely prescriptive world (the individual follows the process) to a more dynamic world (the individual has an impact on the process). This is called People Centric Operations.

The idea, once again, is to take into account the often unpredictable nature of their work while providing a framework and mobilizing collective intelligence to improve things over time.

People and Operations: same battle

Production, distribution, knowledge use, work organization: we find the same issues on both sides.

Some see the consequences in terms of mental workload, employee experience, quality of life at work and others in terms of individual and collective efficiency.

But at the beginning the causes are the same.

Intuitively, when I took over the management of the Employee Experience, I started with the process part because I thought that this was where I would have a quick impact on the employee experience, while at the same time making operational improvements that would justify the approach and show the beginning of a ROI to everyone, even the most skeptical. The idea was to be comfortable selling the approach to both finance and operations. In the end, I took over the operations under my responsibility. And going from one to the other was not a huge challenge because as we have seen, the core of the problem was the same and it suited me well to be able to attack it from both sides at the same time.

And what about the technology in all this?

As you can read and hear on a regular basis, technology improves the employee experience and makes them more efficient, all at the same time.

While this is potentially true, in reality it is not. I’ll remind you of Solow’s famous paradox that says “we see the age of computers everywhere but in productivity statistics“.

There are many explanations for this, depending on the era and the use cases, some of them even going towards measurement error. In any case, we cannot put on the same level investments in infrastructure or software for example.

But as far as knowledge workers are concerned, I believe in a number of hypotheses.

1°) Technology is badly used.

2°) The more intensive its use becomes, the more it can become a source of distraction.

3°) Since it is a technology that does not totally automate a process by replacing the human being, measuring its impact on productivity is like measuring the productivity of individuals, and we do not know how to measure the productivity of knowledge workers.

Technology allows two things: to produce faster and on a larger scale. Applied to a dysfunctional organization, it allows it to dysfunction, to generate problems, even faster and on a larger scale than before.

It is therefore necessary to take the problems in the right order.

Conclusion: a central problem that is not sufficiently addressed

When we talk about collective efficiency or knowledge work processes, we often see in people’s eyes that we are talking about something that for them concerns only a few people and is above all a theoretical subject.

Today, knowledge workers are not only a more and more significant part of the workforce, but it is their activities that drive the growth of our economies. Even in industry, while machines have replaced blue-collar workers, a large part of the workforce is made up of white-collar workers, and the bulk of the human workforce in these companies is in engineering, design, finance or marketing.

We’re not talking about an elite either, which often makes the subject distant. Insofar as a person’s job is to receive, elaborate and distribute information, he is a knowledge worker. This goes from the CEO to the assistant and finally to many people at all levels of the company.

Let’s ask the question differently: where would manufacturing be without people like Taylor, Deming and their successors? It would not be brilliant. Today, everything related to the tertiary sector, to services, to knowledge-based professions is at the same point as industry was at the beginning of the last century. We have even managed to bring in technology without rethinking the way we work. Hats off!

Many people in organizations, from HR to operational managers, are trying to solve the consequences of these shortcomings, each on their own, but without ever addressing the root causes.

And this while these first causes are moreover common to them.

Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

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