Knowledge work: better, faster, cheaper, more

This month’s Working/Learning blog carnival is hosted by Tony Karrer at WorkLiteracy. The questions he poses:

  • Does a knowledge-work skills gap exist?
  • If so, what are examples of where to help knowledge workers?
  • Is this receiving appropriate attention?

In talking about a framework, Tony has an initial list of possible task categories:

  • Scan: stay up to speed on a topic
  • Find: this includes evaluate, narrow, adjust
  • Keep / Organize / Refind: I like the word “retrieve” as a shortcut
  • Leverage / Present
  • Network
  • Collaborate
  • Learn
  • Improve (evaluate and build your work and learning skills)

That framework post has an overwhelming amount of other looks at the topic (as well as topics living on the same block).

One difficulty I’ve been having with the label “work literacy” is the implication that everybody knows what the “common knowledge work tasks” are, and that these tasks manifest themselves in the same way regardless of setting.  (I’m fully aware that Tony, Michele, and others aren’t implying this, but the inference seems there for the making.)

Another problem is one that Richard Hoeg raises in a comment:

The BIG “learning� I’ve taken away from my failures, is that any initiative I lead I must always first analyze the present work flows of my company’s employees. Any tool which does not easily integrate into one’s normal daily work will never be adopted. My employees have no desire for new tools, but they do want to have their tool set be more effective.

“My employees have no desire for new tools” may be a little hyperbolic, but not much. I have a hunch (a bias?) that many people who are highly networked, highly connected, highly 2.0 just plain like tools. Especially new ones.

But not everybody does. The average person, by definition, isn’t an early adopter — he’s average. Even the average knowledge worker is average. His job is “knowledge work” mostly because he’s not waiting tables and not loading cowl sides into boxcars: “knowledge work” is a category. I think the worker himself sees his job as its main outcome-producing processes. In other words:

“I manage my food-company inventory for our grocery-chain client.”
“I resolve supply problems for the retailers who sell our printers and copiers.”
“I review health claims for former atomic-weapons workers or their survivors.”
“I train our sales force in features, benefits, and competitive positioning for our EDI software.”

So what?

So, I don’t think I’ll get far starting a conversation that implies folks are not literate. I know that’s not what’s intended, but I see it as a potential barrier.

The conversation can’t be about “literacy” — unless you’re talking to the CEO, who of course will figure you mean other people.

If you’re talking to the workers themselves, the conversation might start with information. Ignoring (or at least not focusing on) content details (what IBM used to call speeds and feeds), what information do you need to get to do your job? What information do you need to have? What information do you need to share? (And when, with whom, et cetera…)

Stealing freely from Tony’s grid, but sliding things around a bit, the conversation deals with questions like:

  • What do you need (to know, to get, to do…)?
    • This isn’t “what’s missing?” This is, “what do you need to get your job done?”
    • It’s also not about physical objects, though they’ll come into the conversation.  The key is the knowledge/informational aspects of the physical objects.
  • How do you do that now?
  • What works well? What doesn’t?
  • Could you / would you like to do the “well” better?
  • Would you like to do the “doesn’t” better?

I’m rummaging around for a term. It’s something similar to metacognition, but that has a lot of polysyllabic baggage, and people outside of the training/learning profession don’t light up with joy when you start talking about “learning how to learn.” I haven’t found that term yet, but it connects to this useful debate on ways to help people who want help to find, retain, apply, share, and strengthen their knowledge-work skills

3 thoughts on “Knowledge work: better, faster, cheaper, more

  1. Why not use “environmental scanning” which is used in Marketing? In this case you are using it for personal learning rather than the organization or market.

  2. Geary Rummler and Tom Gilbert, when they consulted together as Praxis, used the term “organizational scan,” so your suggestion has logic to it.

    (Though I have to confess that I’ve usually thought of “marketing” as what you do when you can’t sell stuff.)

    I was trying to stick to shorter words that Tony used — more as heuristics than as a taxonomy. And I’m also thinking of the people actually doing this work. I never get anywhere trying to explain terms like “performance improvement.” The scanning to me has elements of keeping up, watching out, and staying alert — but that phrase has seven words.

Comments are closed.