Knowledge workers perform craft work, and like any good craftsperson, you need a well-equipped workshop designed to meet the demands of your knowledge work.
by Jim McGee
Since at least the days of Lotus 1–2–3, software marketers have promoted the notion of the one true tool; invest in one software product to support all of the knowledge work you will ever need to do. We keep falling for their seductive promises to our continuing disappointment.
For many projects, Swiss Army knives and Leathermen Tools are the answer. Multi-purpose tools are fine for toy problems and simple tasks, but no one serious about a craft works with a single tool. Good craftspeople depend on a collection of tools that work together and in a workshop where they can be found and used as the need arises.
We are at a point in carrying out knowledge work where we would be well-served by setting aside the quest for the one true tool and turning toward the problem of creating and equipping a knowledge workshop suited to our needs.
What makes a workshop?
- It’s a collection of tools, each suited to particular tasks and projects. Some tools are old, some new; some are general purpose, some specialized; some are used every day, others less frequently.
- Tools are organized and arranged so the right tool is available whenever needed.
- It contains an inventory of common parts and useful raw materials already assembled just in case.
- In the corner sits a scrap bin full of fragments and discards. These are handy to test new tools or to create quick jigs and fixtures that might be helpful in constructing a final product.
These characteristics of physical workshops offer guidance in how we can go about creating a knowledge workshop suited to our needs. For a few specialized forms of knowledge work, the nature of a knowledge workshop is already reasonably well understood. Software developers have rich choices for their development environments. Bond traders and other investment specialists can have very sophisticated custom work environments built and maintained in the quest for a few more basis points.
Those of us doing more general knowledge work need a strategy for getting from the concept to the creation of our own knowledge workshop. That plan consists of three phases; setting the workshop up, learning to use it effectively, and dealing with the roadblocks that this craft-centered strategy will inevitably elicit in the typical organization.
The exact details of setting up a knowledge workshop will vary by the particular form of knowledge work you do. Are you extracting insight from numbers? Are you designing new organizations? Are you writing research reports? The specific form your knowledge work takes will guide you to the particular tools relevant to the deliverables you create.
There are some general guidelines that apply regardless of the specific area of knowledge work. First, you are building a workshop, not searching for the perfect tool. Pay attention to whether tools you are considering play nice with one another. Second, be conscious of how the tool mix is developing. Is there a balance between big tools and little specialty tools? Do the specialty tools bridge the gaps between what the big tools handle? Do the specialty tools get used often enough to be worth keeping, or do they exact greater demands on your memory than they return in improved effectiveness?
While selecting, assembling, and (eventually) integrating a random collection of tools into something more useful, consider how you will assemble relevant supporting materials. If you are a wordsmith, do you want an online dictionary available? Do you want more than one? If you perform market analysis, are there general statistical tables or reports that you draw on repeatedly (e.g., the Statistical Abstract of the United States)? Are the tools and materials arranged and organized to make your work easier, or are they a long list of random entries or icons on your desktop?
Once your workshop is set up, you can begin what will become the never-ending task of learning to use it effectively. Set aside time to play with your tools and discover their limits and features. If you want to take advantage of pivot tables in Excel, waiting until they are essential to the product you must deliver by the end of the week is a mistake. Do you need to discover that pivot tables exist first? This is all in the nature of “productive play,” of learning what is possible from the workshop you are designing.
“Productive play” may be essential to doing better knowledge work, but it is also a notion certain to trigger corporate antibodies in most organizations. You will encounter resistance, so you must have a plan for addressing it. Your most potent weapon: your ability to deliver better quality knowledge work.
Before you can do this, identify and enlist allies in your efforts and co-opt or counteract the most dangerous sources of resistance. The specifics will vary by organization, but expect to run afoul of your IT group and whoever ended up with oversight of Sarbanes-Oxley compliance for starters. Step zero of any knowledge workshop strategy then becomes: "Take your CIO to lunch or befriend the folks staffing the help desk." Their policy roles make them potential enemies, but their natural predispositions also make them potential allies.
The monoculture of office suites and corporate Web portals is rooted in outmoded assumptions about the nature of work as an industrial task.
Knowledge work is not factory work; factory strategies will not help IT workers. Tools are what you give to someone filling a well-defined role on the assembly line. A knowledge worker—you—needs to go further. Build your custom workshop now and see your work prosper.