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Nickols: Meeting the Challenge of the Shift to Knowledge Work

A second paper from Nickols' housecleaning at Distance Consulting. The paper is much longer, and it rambles a little. But it does bring up some interesting thoughts for me.

Meeting the Challenge of the Shift to Knowledge Work was originally written ~20 years ago on the "issues raised by the shift to 'mind work'" from 'muscle work'. Nickols highlights this idea with two vignettes from his days in the US Navy, and other stories are peppered throughout the article. He summarized the introduction thusly:

The task of management, then, has shifted from one of obtaining, ensuring and enforcing compliance to one of eliciting and capitalizing on the contributions that only the knowledge worker can make. Said a little differently, the task of management has become one of managing people who must manage themselves.

We also can't forget that "Making knowledge work productive work (managing knowledge work) is itself knowledge work." Nickols makes the distinction to help describe the different activities in the world of knowledge-centric work.

Nickols takes the reader through a few misconceptions about knowledge work and how these complicate the question of managing.

  • K work is not "invisible." Nickols makes the useful distinction that even if the working is invisible (in the head), the results end up being visible. It is the end results that are managed, not so much the how we get there. This leads to the myth that
  • Controlling the worker controls the (resulting) work. The Knowledge worker is not an instrument that can be (easily) controlled. In the days of manual labor, this may have been true. But today, working is internal and it's the worker who exerts the best control over that activity. Management needs to think about this differently. Essentially, the answer is to specify the product (the work), and give the worker the means to get there. Nickols suggests that those means should allow for innovation and creativity, as long as the work meets the needs of the organization.

From here, Nickols went on to detail his ideas, particularly focusing on the distinction between knowledge work and how work is accomplished. He describes three dimensions of knowledge work: information processing, knowledge application, knowledge creation. Depending on the work, people find themselves participating in these three behaviors in varying amounts.

Working has three dimensions: physical, verbal, mental. Each job combines these dimensions differently. Nickols' point is that to "increase productivity of work (the 'challenge'), energy expended in these dimensions must be efficient and effective." For example, there is no value in making verbal working highly effective if the job is primarily mental. Nickols then goes through examples from his consulting experience of making each type of work more productive.

From this theoretical discussion, Nickols jumps to anecdotes and tips, based on his experience in running these types of projects. He has a number of interesting thoughts about project management. All of his suggestions work with the assumptions in the rest of the paper: that improving knowledge work requires channeling energy along productive lines.

  • To reduce risk do a prototype. "The hallmarks of the shift to knowledge work are ambiguity and uncertainty. Risk increases with ambiguity and uncertainty, and risk acts to constrain action."
  • Avoid specific task assignments. Nickols suggests that with everyone responsible for everything on a project, it is less likely for something to fall through the cracks. For some reason, this sounds more like no one responsible for anything and a guarantee that the project will fall through the cracks. However, with smaller workgroups and subsets of tasks this may make more sense. And it even ties into the Theory of Constraints idea that, when possible, tasks should be assigned to resource pools to better take advantage of resource leveling.
  • Emphasize project importance by removing other distractions from the team members. Nickols suggests doing this by "locking" people into the project room. While extreme, projects and individuals do perform better with less multitasking. Maybe a good environment of project prioritization would help here as well.
  • Exploit Parkinson's Law by purposefully shortening deadlines, or refusing to extend them. Rather brute-force, but Nickols says that people get incredibly focused on the important activities in these circumstances. CCPM also seeks to exploit Parkinson's Law, but does it in the open by removing "fluff" from individual tasks and giving it to the whole project. In both cases, the focus is on overall project success.

KM position at SAP America

Nickols: Knowledge Work is a Myth