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Everything is connected ... really ... Putting meaning to work

This article appears in the issue March 2010 (100 Companies) [Volume 19, Issue 3]
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Everything might be fragmented and  miscellaneous, but work is connected, by reality itself.

Committing vast resources to the “fragmented and miscellaneous” aspect of our Internet-driven economy is a deer-in-the-headlights reaction to the superabundance of information. That reaction might be unavoidable, but it is also unfortunate, because information—and, in particular, unstructured content—is a surface characteristic of knowledge-based activities, not their essence. Focusing exclusively on new ways to handle or respond to the superabundance of information distracts us, ironically, from solving the most important problems of the Information Age.

It’s easy to succumb to the frenzy of gathering, creating and sharing information. Ditto for building better search engines and “social tagging.” Those activities sound perfectly rational, and sometimes you can point to cases in which doing them better leads to improved performance. Did you find an answer that you might not have found otherwise because you used a more advanced search engine? Were you more likely to find the right person for the job because skill search technology located the right set of experts for the project? Did it become easier to maintain and reuse the information in your manuals because you coded that content with the Darwin Information Typing Architecture?

What really counts

It’s not that we should—or even can—shift our attention completely away from information (and unstructured information, in particular). It’s that we have failed to address meaning in the context of work. Yet, that is what we need to do in order to transform our economic activities, both as individuals and as groups working toward common goals.

In one of the great ironies of creation of value by humans, we looked at the byproduct of knowledge work—that is, information—and saw in it both the problem and the solution for the central socio-economic problems of our times. We stopped looking at what we do, how we do it and how we create value. Our reaction to knowledge work has been analogous to focusing on the shavings on the machine shop floor instead of on how we create products with those machines.

You cannot—and do not—act on words. You act on meaning. You always have to convert words into meaning before you act. It’s the meaning behind information that counts. And sometimes you don’t need words at all.

Meaning? Yes, “the thing one intends to convey especially by language,” according to the Merriam Webster dictionary. Not the language itself, not the text strings and symbols that fill our books and screens, but the significant stuff that language intends to represent so that we can communicate what we understand. The connections among things. Causes and effects. In the context of work: the relevance or importance of those connections. The subject of logic, argument and epistemology. A pervasive, essential aspect of rational human activities that is accepted as critical to creation of value and economic progress, and yet an idea routinely dismissed as unusable, elusive and unmanageable at the same time. And the missing ingredient in our understanding of work and the creation of value in the age of information.

The knowledge worker

According to Wikipedia, the term “knowledge worker” was coined by Peter Drucker in 1959. It describes a person who “works primarily with information or one who develops and uses knowledge in the workplace.”

When knowledge management gained mindshare in the 1990s, consultants and commentators rushed to adopt the term, giving it broad acceptance as a description of trends in work in developed countries. Economists, business managers and consultants all asserted that competitiveness and innovation depended heavily on this new class of knowledge workers ... and far less on the productivity of laborers.

Since then, thousands of books, articles, Web sites, blogs and corporate white papers have been devoted to knowledge work and knowledge management—some from the perspective of technologies applied in such work, and others with greater emphasis on cultural change in the organization and increased frequency of collaboration.

Going back about 12 years, we find David Collins claiming in the Journal of Systemic Knowledge Management: “Over the last few years considerable attention has been shown in the analysis of ‘knowledge work’ and in the analysis of knowledge-intensive forms of organization ... By far the majority of those who use the term seem to agree, broadly, that there is a form of work that we might meaningfully categorize as knowledge work.”

Nevertheless, it appears that there is no unambiguous, universally accepted definition of the term knowledge work. Programmers, marketing personnel, Web designers, business planners, economists, any job with the word “analyst” in its title and hundreds of other job categories fit a commonsense understanding of the term.

Labels vs. understanding

Most managers are clearly knowledge workers. If you produce information products of various kinds—documents, analyses, art—you’re almost certainly a knowledge worker. If you apply software in your work, you get the label with little argument. If you use the Internet in your work for more than a couple minutes per workday, it’s highly likely that you’re a knowledge worker. And you certainly qualify if you use your experience and education in healthcare, finance, human resources and hundreds of other domains to get things done.

However, defining knowledge work as “working with information”—and, more recently, directing most of our attention to solving the problem of superabundance of information—simply doesn’t take us to a deeper understanding of how we can make knowledge work better.

The stunning reality is that we, as knowledge workers, often spend more than half our time doing work that has no formal description, no standards for best practices and no appropriate metrics. What’s more, that work is not formally or explicitly connected to specific outcomes, whether they are services or products.

Given the well-known impact of F.W. Taylor on industrial work and the open-ended opportunity for improving knowledge work, it is surprising that no one has attempted to analyze knowledge work as systematically as Taylor did, especially as expressed in the first and most important of his four principles of scientific management: Replace rule-of-thumb work methods with methods based on a scientific study of the tasks.

What we don’t know

One reason for that deep resistance to a Taylor-like approach to analysis of knowledge work is the assumption that the result would be dehumanizing assembly lines and rote work activities for knowledge workers. That claim is repeated frequently, but without any foundation. Until we develop and apply something analogous to Taylor’s “scientific management” to knowledge work, we simply do not know whether the outcome of applying such an approach would make that work more or less tedious or dehumanizing. By some logic, it should actually improve working conditions. Consider, for example, the opportunity to (1) reduce the ambiguity of tasks and (2) give workers more objective criteria for productivity and performance evaluation. That might result in better working conditions in general and substantially reduced stress in particular. But we don’t know that yet.

Looking more closely at knowledge work

If you view the world through the lens of information, it’s fair to say that “everything is miscellaneous” or “everything is fragmented.” But those are statements of the problem, not solutions. They are insights that present opportunities, but they are not the first or only challenges to which we need to devote our energy. Instead, we need to turn our attention to how people deal with realities, how they perform meaningful activities in the real world. And in that real world, everything is connected—by reality itself, by what exists, by what people do, by the relationships among all things.

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