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Knowledge Work as “Beyond Management”

Is traditional management dead? Is measurement a “hangover from the industrial era”? Does knowledge work require a more flexible and “touchy feely” paradigm for organizational effectiveness?

These are some of the questions that Dr. Mark Addleson, Associate Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University posed in his opening presentation at the Knowledge Management Institute’s KM Café in Arlington, Virginia last February 16 (it has taken me that long to post this fascinating talk!). These are also some of the themes he will be exploring in a forthcoming book.

Definitions and Context:

Dr. Addleson contrasted factory work (repetitive, mindless…based on the old Frederick Taylor “scientific” management models) with knowledge work which resists strict organization. In essence, knowledge work and management “don’t mix” – hence, knowledge workers need to organize themselves. In the early 1990s, KM tended to focus on harnessing tacit knowledge, and early champions such as Peter Drucker viewed KM as a management approach. Such a management focus is characterized by the “5 D’s: data, deadlines, deliverables, dollars and directives.” Yet this KM view is too confining since “knowledge work can’t be managed…it is not compatible with structures, rules, systems.” Today’s KM approaches tend to be “little K and big M”, with too much of a focus on outcomes and deliverables (as in international development), and a consequent tendency to be dysfunctional.

In Addleson’s view, we need to focus not on the “doughnut” of typical management elements, but on the “hole” of people, relationships and insight…i.e. how KM work gets done in practice. While traditional management is a “view from the top”, the key KM question is not “what” but “where” is knowledge work done. It is “what people do when they interact, talk to one another, and share knowledge to accomplish something together.” It involves “give and take…and people making meaning together…and making sense of uncertain situations.”

From this more dynamic perspective, work is “creative, emergent, messy” and it depends on “attitudes, emotions, feeling, values, beliefs and relationships’ (hence its touchy-feely character!). Knowledge worker skills consist of varied “stakeholders “ negotiating, meaning, and organizing to determine roles, responsibilities, places, dates, etc. One good example of this KM approach is the flexible Agile Software Development Manifesto. Another example is how Wikipedia (or Facebook) came into being and has thrived.

Questions and Issues?

While a provocative and fresh look at whither KM, especially in the midst of the rapidly evolving social media scene, I was intrigued by the following questions… (some of which were discussed with attendees at the KMI KM Café):

  1. Given Dr. Addleson’s KM prescription, is traditional project management dead? Belying my own PMP background, I think not. Rather the new fluid tools and workspaces often seem to cry out at some point for more formal structure, deliverables, and accountability – all of which sound to me like more traditional management concepts.
  2. Is SharePoint by nature a more conservative enterprise management tool (Big M in the above context) vs. other more agile open source and other light-weight collaboration and content management apps (e.g. Google Apps, Wikipedia)? My own sense is that enterprises should think about tapping both formal and informal info-sharing tools and structures. SharePoint 2010, in fact, builds in a lot more social media into its new enterprise application.

And some other questions which I am still pondering…

  1. How does one set the new boundaries between managers and knowledge workers, and between formal and informal information systems?
  2. What social media and other technologies might best support evolution to this more flexible knowledge worker model?
  3. Given the rigidities of our current organizations, what are some practical next steps in better supporting knowledge work?

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