Managing these ‘knowledge workers’ can present significant challenges, especially to managers who primarily focus their efforts on planning and control systems
When you are accountable for the work of professionals an important aspect of your management role is to make sure that these highly-educated creative self-motivated people remain satisfied with their work and focused on the outcomes that matter to the organisation. It's a tricky balance; on the one hand you trust them to acquire and apply specialist knowledge in ways that make sense for the organisation without your guidance. On the other hand they must be provided with sufficient direction if they are to achieve the outcomes you expect.
Managing these ‘knowledge workers' can present significant challenges especially to managers who primarily focus their efforts on planning and control systems maintaining order and measuring progress. Although these traditional aspects of management are no less important when knowledge work is involved the management conundrum is how to ensure progress against the organisation's aims whilst also allowing the flexibility autonomy and creative space that knowledge workers need to be effective.
And knowledge work is no longer the exclusive domain of staff holding higher degrees and belonging to professional associations such as APESMA. When the term was coined in the 1960's knowledge work was starkly differentiated from manual or so-called ‘routine' work; it was said that knowledge workers were paid to think and everyone else was paid to carry out orders! Although there are settings where senior managers still believe this distinction applies long-term success in our information-based global economy increasingly means that everyone is paid to think and everyone's knowledge counts. To a greater or lesser extent everyone is a knowledge worker.
The most effective managers of knowledge workers make sure they have an in-depth understanding of what knowledge is in their work setting how much of it can be managed and how to make the most of the knowledge that defies management. They also appreciate what knowledge workers need from management if they are to perform at their best.
Knowledge and knowledge management
Whist the dictionary definition that knowledge is ‘general awareness or possession of information facts and ideas' is somewhat helpful for understanding what knowledge is it falls well short of defining knowledge adequately for management purposes.
So-called ‘explicit' knowledge in the form of information and facts lends itself to being captured shared and diffused across a workforce. The discipline of ‘knowledge management' affords many proven techniques for doing so and technology is an important enabler.
Far more difficult to capture and codify however is another form of knowledge; the sort of knowledge a surgeon uses to apply the techniques she learned in medical school to the particular needs of a specific patient. This ‘tacit' knowledge sits in stark contrast with explicit knowledge in that it emerges from experience is often difficult to articulate and defies the ‘capturing' on which knowledge management depends. Try explaining how to do something you find easy to somebody who is struggling to do the same thing and you will experience the challenge of transferring tacit knowledge.
A good knowledge management system will boost your knowledge workers' productivity but it is only one part of managing knowledge workers. Of equal importance and considerably greater complexity is the challenge of understanding and responding to what knowledge workers need from management.
What knowledge workers need from managers
The last thing your knowledge workers are likely to need is for you to tell them what to do or how to do it. Yet for your work group to reach its goals knowledge workers must be clear on where their effort should be focused how their performance will be assessed and how much scope they have to determine the approach they will use to meet their objectives.
Where knowledge work is concerned managers' efforts should be focused on:
- ensuring that people have opportunities to participate in defining the outcomes they will work towards;
- developing shared understanding of expected outcomes amongst everyone whose efforts will help achieve them;
- making sure that people are supported to do the work they are expected to do in ways that make the most of their knowledge and their capacity for creating new knowledge;
- creating working environments that are conducive to the creativity necessary for new knowledge to be created;
- allowing time for creativity innovation and the development integration adaptation and cross-pollination of ideas; and
- facilitating development and sharing of the knowledge which will advance the organisation's interests.
By way of example the newly-appointed managing director of a heavily-regulated statutory authority understood the frustration that the engineers scientists and other professionals across the organisation had felt about his predecessor's ‘command and control' style. Whilst the new MD understood the potential productivity gains from empowering people at all levels to work with much greater delegated authority he also knew that the organisation's compliance obligations meant that he had to keep tight control over the outcomes of the organisation as a whole. He had been hired to effect cultural change but knew that he must do so without exposing the organisation to the risk of non-compliance with the legislation.
His approach to changing the organisation's culture began with a process of educating managers at all levels about the organisation's compliance obligations; knowledge which had formerly been seen to be the domain of board members and executive managers only.
There followed a highly consultative approach to strategic planning which engaged everyone in the knowledge-creating task of determining the organisation's strategic direction without compromising the board's ultimate accountability for outcomes. A structured process was then used to translate strategic directions into operational plans which defined outcomes and how progress would be measured.
By the time the process concluded every individual staff member was clear on their goals and how their progress would be measured. However there were no prescriptions for how they would achieve their goals; only a set of organisational values and essential policies to guide the choices people would make in the months and years ahead about how to do the work necessary to achieve agreed outcomes. Along the way managers and supervisors participated in professional development to help hone their skills in managing knowledge workers.
Transforming the organisation's culture would require several years of concerted and well coordinated effort; effort that was widely seen to be worthwhile given the wealth of knowledge creating capacity of the professionals involved and its potential value.
Knowledge and professional networks
To survive and thrive organisation's must continually update their knowledge bases making sure that relevant data and information becomes useful knowledge and that obsolete knowledge is replaced. So too professionals need to keep up to date with newly-created knowledge in their areas of specialisation. For many it is also important to contribute their knowledge to the profession at large.
Professional networks such as those facilitated by APESMA and similar organisations can be as valuable to employing organisations as they are to the individual members. Encouraging and supporting your knowledge workers to identify and join a professional association of relevance to their work interests will usually return a value far higher than the cost of supporting their participation.
Looking for more ideas?
For readers with an interest in the topics covered in this article the following articles and guides are available on the website:
About the Author
Dr Janet Fitzell is an independent organisational consultant and facilitator specialising in organisational development and team dynamics through her company FourLeaf Consulting Pty Ltd (www.fourleaf.com.au). She facilitates strategic planning and team development undertakes organisational reviews using a collaborative approach coaches individuals and teams and generally helps organisations to build sustainable futures.
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