This post was sparked when I roll back to a Nokia mobile phone introduced in 2007, when I suddenly quit my 3 years relationship with Blackberry and realized than an outdated piece of technology could continue to serve my communication needs on a touch screen devices era.
Companies that start to grow in international markets start wondering, why there are productivity gaps in places where the same piece of work is executed with the very same resources (tech and headcount). Many times managers think the way of killing those gasps is about linking or stimulating productivity,with the typical person KPI’s vs process/business KPI’s aligned.
Actually the factor that undermines productivity gaps is soft skills and soft skills derive from the social environment and work experience where workers lives that define the attitude towards work patterns (meaning from disconnected to committed). For those that have international experience knows that in Japan work is everything, in central Europe is something we need to respect, in Spain tomorrow is another day and in the US hard cash is all it counts. Contrary what you may thing I’m not saying that Spanish people are lazy, because in the next day work is finished and business keeps moving while in Japan they can stay 24 hours working on a solution. On the other hand you can have a very talented workforce but without access to tools to proper execute and propel execution your company is not going to achieve the right results.
Up to this point you are probably wondering what is doing a prehistoric tablet mixed with the text.
The rise of the knowledge worker does depend the way we exercise our brain
There is a lot of discussion since 2010 about the rise of the knowledge worker and the prediction that Peter Drucker did back in the 60’s that countries where toward the emerging of knowledge society, as the degree of schooling and improvement of the education system grew, so too would increase the number of individuals with more expertise.
I tend to disagree with this view, basically because the rise of the knowledge worker is due the combination of two highly coupled factors: the social factor and the technology factor.
The social factor
On the social factor we are facing a displacement of “assembly line ” people from leading GDP countries to aspiring ones, because the tiny break down tasks can be transferred to those that can do the same thing for more than a half of the cost. This shift occurs in industry sectors from manufacturing to services. But in the near future that tiny tasks will be fully automated and unfortunately those new brave workers will be obliterated, unless there are new work opportunities, or chances to execute more elaborated work or people adapt and start pushing it’s capabilities to new boundaries. This shift have also a profound implication on the type of people companies are sourcing at the labor market: as leading companies expand and operations are outsourced or transferred to low wages economies, the future workers profile is aimed at highly skilled persons capable of embrace business dynamics. Something that younger generations will have an advantage regarding the experience with new technologies, social interaction (that expands reasoning and collaboration capacity as youngsters interact with foreign peers) and hyper connectivity, always on, always wired (but curiously less committed with company mission).
Thus on one hand there are economic conditions to these new corporate warriors stop crawling and start walking, at least on more developed countries and companies with new business models. But economic conditions alone does not support the knowledge management paradigm.
Last couple of years managers are being told that technology is playing a major role on company strategy decisions, future trends (next 5 years) include among others, internet of things, ubiquity, cloud, big data and … social technologies.
On service companies I see technology ramping up on automated tasks, like it happened on manufacturing (substituting the parts assembler) and caring simple or pattern based decisions leaving room to the rise of knowledge workers that will be concentrated on complex tasks, reasoning and problem solving.
This has impact on the way a company is organized. Technology advances will erode mechanical, repeated human tasks, but on the other hand will demand highly experienced employees, people will think more and execute less. I believe in the next 15 years it will be possible that systems start to take defined tasks, creating alerts being able to track and respond to human needs. Unmanned Audi TT Pikes Peak project is an example of things we should expect to come (still I’m skeptical about this for the reasons bellow) .
Now, on the other hand this knowledge worker fixation can only work it together with proper technology can be put in place.
Is technology the main enabler to knowledge worker rise?
The figure above – the Nokia N800, was one (or the one) of the first tablets. When it was released in 2007, most of the annalists review it as something useless because the only thing it could do was surfing on the internet and it did not make phone calls (does this resembles to other device released some years latter that people became addicted to?). Thus despite a company envisioned the need to have a device to facilitate internet access and try to create mobile information access, internet 2.0 was in the early beginning and was not possible to use it inside corporate world, not because managers did not discover it’s importance, but because there was not reliable and available communication infra-structure to use it. Back in 2007, mobile internet was slow, not ubiquitous, and cost a lot of money. WI-FI was in ramping up and cable infrastructure, communications backbone did not allow speed we have access today like the fiber optic experience. Tools to virtual access had high upfront costs limiting information access. Despite the fact Nokia had somehow predicted the future we would access information, there was not complimentary technology to support it.
This makes me remember another flop, when in the middle 90’s some refrigerator manufactures start introducing models equipped with flat screens that allow tv/radio/internet access, and could control the food you put inside of it as also it could recommend to buy some eggs it a threshold was reached or alert that the cheese you had has exceed the expiration date. Hence it’s not true that people accept decisions done by a system by themselves, even if they are simple or seemingly without any value.
As communication cost decreases and speed increases in many parts of the world cost will no longer be something to look for in communication (one of the reasons Skype became so popular, that sometimes people wait to have internet access to make a phone call rather that burn some more cents from the cellular network). The communication cost will alter radically the way a business is executed, combined with different software licensing models erasing high up front licensing costs. There is no point in adopting matrix organizational models as in CISCO, Google and Facebook. without the combination of the right technology, systems and communication.
As the cost of communication drops, the shift will be towards applications. combined with increased computer capacity and speed, we will be able engage and have information access in real time. Cloud will contribute definitely to cut the rope from fixed and limited availability and processing power. The way we are used to work, examining a problem, get information, build a team, propose a solution will dramatically change, specifically information access, building virtual team (most of team members could be in different time zones or even we don’t have any kind of acquaintance) and real time collaboration.
Back to social
Knowledge workers tend to engage and create circles to work together, or if you prefer teams. This will require individuals to take responsibility throughout the quest, from the moment they choose or are choosen to make part of it. this will lead to decentralization of decision-making and empowerment of people, but not as far as the stories you read in Fast Company about Cisco, Google and Facebook.Things like “everybody contributes freely”; “make the day looks like a full week” ; “I whant do sleep but I have so much ideas to deliver” does not happen in 90,99% of the companies, because unlike these three, most of business models does not equals and you simply can’t have “like mini CEOs and COOs”.
One of the major changes social paradigm brought into place was the way people form teams to resolve problems. Teams are based on trust, I mean you believe a person is capable of doing something rather that it’s personal skills. I started feeling that when I was invited to work with a standard group from the WFMC and joined other of the W3C and my early technical manufacturing groups. People tend to trust on someone that is far from it’s inner collaboration circle, people they don’t even know personally because the lads you work side by side typically deliver less than the ones you never saw it’s face.
I assume this is controversial, but believe it or not, this one of the working patterns of today’s social engagement. Like you, people you don’t know, don’t like to fail to deliver because this was the only factor that make you connect with. Recommendations still can play a major role, but on this new working environment you are striped from your appearance, humans reactions, clothes and personal convictions. you concentrate only in what you capable to deliver based on your work experience/environment and reasoning.
The new collaborative process is absolutely in contrast the fixed interactions you could reach before.
Technology always defined and enabled progress
In the 15th and 16th centuries, Portugal was world’s global player. For such a tinny country that was a major achievement only made possible because we dominate maritime technology. In 18th century industrial revolution was again due the introduction of new technology, the steam engine. Information technology has already introduced radical changes the way we live. It’s allowing us to open new possibilities, collaboration, experimentation and information access, providing different alternatives towards flexibility and to make better decisions.
Information technology and communications plays a key role to support knowledge work. A Knowledge worker alone don’t exist.
Knowledge management systems need to support knowledge navigation, exploration, information flow and work execution. Information repositories, databases aren’t capable of such support (by the way read this series of essays I written before called Semantic BPM). It’s not possible to ask a system administrator and pull for knowledge. Navigation is supported by context, visualization, maps, task execution, indexing, monitoring, search, natural language processing, and ontology backed (process, domain and organizational). This last feature will be critical to knowledge management as information grows and become dispersed.