To understand the frustration and issues of engagement within knowledge employees one only needs to understand the role of management in industrial and knowledge organisations. This article hopes to clarify the issue.
The task of managing an organisation ultimately comes down to managing the 2C’s – that is how do we get people to cooperate and how to coordinate work. Cooperation enables information to flow whereas coordination enables physical materials to flow, both of which are required at the right time in the right place for outputs to be generated.
In industrial organisations, the “2C” challenges are largely managed through “work flow design.” Industrial workers are presented a way of working in which they have to conform to the work flow. The industrial worker’s discretion is limited and often limited to only his work area. Inputs come in, he makes a “go/no go” decision on transforming that input into an output which then moves on to the next process. The industrial world has done a fantastic job of achieving consistent standards of quality across outputs with six sigma precision while at the same time keeping industrial workers motivated as seen in the Toyota Production System.
Whereas for the knowledge organisation, the knowledge of the worker is a prime contributor to into the production process. It is with knowledge that inputs are created, transformed and shaped in outputs which customers pay for (think software code or hotel concierge). The 2C challenge is significantly higher in knowledge work as compared to industrial work. Evidence of this is the amount of time knowledge workers spend in meetings as compared to industrial workers. Closely examined, much of meeting time is spent trying to overcome cooperation and coordination problems as meeting minutes are often records of who is going to do what by when.
Borrowing from the success of industrial organisations in overcoming the 2C challenge, many knowledge organisations have borrowed techniques from it. Examples are the use of KPI – key performance indicators. In industrial work, KPI’s are measures of process reliability while in knowledge work its been used to measure human performance. The bell curve which was a key tool in statistical process control to measure consistency in production was brought over to measure employee performance. Unfortunately, humans cannot be managed in the same as industrial processes are. Humans are guided by emotions and how humans feel about their work and work environment has a direct impact on their “discretionary effort.” (See the previous article on this here)
To succeed, knowledge organisation will need new ways of managing and a big part of will require devolving control away from management to the employees. Learning how to be in control without being in control will be a new skill. The task of management will be to create the conditions in which cooperation and coordination can flourish without supervision. A great example of this is the work Ricardo Semler, CEO of Semler Partners has done in his “brick & mortar” companies – see here and his TED TALK here.