Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Knowledge Is Power!

“Take this job and shove it!” is a well known refrain from a familiar country & western song. But it’s also a refrain that is far more applicable in today’s “Information Age” than was ever the case in the past. For anyone who is a “knowledge worker” (as will be defined below), it is a fact that today’s companies really need you far more than you need them. While you certainly shouldn’t abuse it, it is important that you recognize the power that your “knowledge” brings you in your companies. Knowledge is power!

In the “Pre-Industrial Age”, most production tasks were carried out by many people using simple implements, and much of the work was able to be performed by pretty much anyone. People were interchangeable, and if more products were required, more people were added to the production process. The term “man-month” was conceived, and implied that people were interchangeable with months. That is, if a job took 4 man-months, it could be performed equally well by 1 person working for 4 months, by 2 people working for 2 months, or by 4 people working for 1 month. The critical element of companies’ production efforts in those times were people, not equipment. This is still true today in certain areas, as demonstrated by much of the work performed by migrant workers.

In the “Industrial Age”, people declined from being the most critical element of companies’ production efforts and equipment took over that position. Companies invested in capital-intensive expensive equipment to eliminate highly repetitive manual jobs and were able to eliminate high labor costs and increase the quality of their products. Anywhere that the labor intensive steps required to carry out a task could be thoroughly quantified and replicated by automated equipment, this was increasingly done and made good economic sense. This is still being done today in manufacturing, agricultural, and other markets. This has led to the rise of manufacturing automation, production robots, automated agricultural equipment, etc.  Watching TV shows such as The History Channel’s Modern Marvels, or Discovery Channel’s How It’s Made shows the tremendous advances made in automation of tasks ranging from donut and candy making to automobile building to integrated circuit fabrication, and way beyond. We’re now seeing many “lights out” factories where the only people present are the maintenance workers needed to keep the machines running.

While automated equipment can replace the production activities of human labor associated with repetitive tasks, the tasks of designing and developing the original products or even the automated equipment to build those products cannot be automated to the same extent. It takes people with specialized intelligence and skills to conceive, plan, and implement those designs and to turn concepts into reality. Such people can be classified as “knowledge workers”, and for them, the concept of “man-month” simply does not apply, because such workers are not interchangeable. Engineers are preeminent examples of “knowledge workers”, as are many others whose specialized knowledge enables them to carry out activities that cannot be readily performed by others without those specialized skills, and cannot be readily automated. It is such “knowledge” and “information” that differentiates them. We are now deeply into the “Information Age”.

In the “Industrial Age” model, the means of production (equipment) remains at the company facility when the people go home at night (often continuing to run and produce).  In the “Information Age” model, the means of "production" (the “knowledge workers”) walks out the door every night when the people go home, because the means of "production" are the brains of those “knowledge workers”. If a key “knowledge worker” leaves a company it can have a potentially devastating impact on that company’s ability to succeed or possibly even to exist.

Companies need to recognize the critical value that their “knowledge workers” provide to the ongoing success of the company.  Managing “knowledge workers” can be a challenge. They tend to be highly skilled, highly capable, and highly opinionated.  Trying to “manage” them is often a bit like herding cats (See Herding Cats: The Art of “Managing” Knowledge Workers). Companies should not apply the same models and methods in managing their “knowledge workers” as they do for their “production workers”.

“Production workers” are generally managed based on how much production they can accomplish in a given time period, for example how many widgets they can produce in a shift. The level of creativity that a “production worker” exhibits may be very useful, but is generally not highly weighted in evaluating their performance.

For “knowledge workers”, however, their level of creativity and their ability to apply their knowledge and intelligence to the job at hand is the primary value they bring to the job, and in managing them, this needs to be recognized. This is not a simple task. Setting performance measures for “knowledge workers” based on how much they accomplish in a given time period can be misleading, because what constitutes “performance” can be difficult to determine. Original design efforts may be based on existing designs and may therefore be straightforward. However, they may instead require new and unproven inventions that take time, trial and error, and even some degree of luck; they may require significantly more time than initially estimated. Setting hard and fast performance criteria may not even be possible, and can often be counter-productive. In many instances the manager who has the responsibility to determine the “performance” of the people reporting into him/her may not have the ability to even recognize what is involved in the work his/her people are doing. Yet this manager is often given sole responsibility to judge the “performance” of his/her people. If a poor or incorrect performance feedback is given, it can lead to dissatisfied employees, poor morale, reduced efforts, or even the loss of critical resources.

Good “knowledge workers” do or should recognize the value that they bring to the organization, and can recognize whether or not their value is appreciated by their management. Based on this, they will be happy or unhappy campers.  When happy, it is a win-win arrangement. When unhappy, there is trouble ahead for everyone involved.

With “production workers”, it was often the worker who would say to the employer, “Take this job and shove it!”, and the employer could quickly bring in someone new to take his/her place. With “knowledge workers”, it is more often the employer who says to the employee, “Please take this job and love it!”, for the employer needs this type of employee more than the employee needs the employer.

Employees can recognize the unique values they provide to their company, and the values that their teams, working effectively together, can bring to the company. Assuming that the company has good and strong leadership, these “knowledge workers” will, by and large, determine the success or failure of the company. It can be an incredible experience when everything clicks and the synergistic efforts of everyone working together effectively can produce results that far exceed the sum of the efforts of each individual. Remember, when used effectively, knowledge is power!

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