Knowledge work, workers and organisations differ significantly from Industrial work, workers and organisations. In industrial organisations, workers are hired for “what they can do” while in knowledge organisations, workers are hired for “what they know.” Industrial organisations rely on money/finance as capital while knowledge organisations rely on knowledge as their source of capital.
Industrial work is characterised by specialisation as observed in Adam’s Smith’sneedle factory example and through the work of guru’s such as Henri Fayol and Fredrick Taylor with the overarching goal of raising combined outputs through the improvement of productivity by using scientific management techniques. Post World War 2, the success of scientific management propelled the West and later Japan into economic successes with rising real incomes and standards of living. As a result, much of our education and knowledge on the subject of work, workers and the management of it is deeply rooted in this industrial worldview.
With the rise of the services sector, organisations, workers and work transitioned from industrial to knowledge. in 1957, Peter Drucker coined the term knowledge work to represent a type of work whereby the inputs are information and the outputs are decisions followed by action. This conversion of information into action is a function of knowledge that resides in the minds of the workers and as articulated by Fredrick Herzberg, these workers can either be motivated or demotivated to give or withhold their knowledge depending on a set of factors. This giving or withholding of knowledge is know as “discretionary effort” and it is for management to create the conditions that maximise the giving of discretionary effort.
Herein lies the problem. Many of our concepts of “management” and “leadership” are still rooted in an industrial worldview, examples of which are the use of KPI’s, performance incentives, the “bell curve”, job design and job sizing. Unfortunately, for knowledge organisations, workers and work, these industrial modalities run counter to what is required for maximising discretionary effort. No amount of leadership training, employee engagement programs, performance management systems tweaks, etc. is going to change this until our understanding and beliefs about knowledge organisations, workers and work change. The moment we are able do this we will be able to empower minds and unleash potential of our people and our organisations.