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Crafting Uniqueness in Knowledge Work

The essence of good knowledge work is creating outputs of appropriate uniqueness not uniformity.

by Jim McGee


Knowledge work has more in common with craft work than with the industrial work of the last century. If we hope to get better at knowledge work, our plan of attack has to start from this perspective. Central to that perspective is that the essence of good knowledge work is uniqueness not uniformity. The ideal knowledge work product is exactly what your customer asked for and could only have been created by you.

The challenge is that we have been trained and conditioned by the industrial economy to strive for uniformity and to see uniqueness as undesirable variation instead of the essential quality it has become. To deliver better knowledge work, we need to unlearn some habits and develop some new perspectives.

Our inappropriate habits stem from assumptions about industrial work. With industrial thinking, once you’ve created a new product the goal becomes how to replicate it predictably. You specify the characteristics of the output precisely, lock down the process, or, ideally, do both. That works if you need to manufacture cars or calculate every employee’s pay stub correctly. It doesn’t when the goal is to create the new product. The primary challenge here is to shift focus away from the issue of replication and toward creation. The question becomes “how do we manage to create this?” instead of “how do we create the same thing all over again?”

Creating good knowledge work has a challenge faced by musicians and artists working for a patron in the Renaissance. Ultimately, you have to please your patron, but frequently you first have to educate your patron about the nature and qualities of the output you have been commissioned to create. This interaction is more complex and more subtle than either simply delivering what the customer asks for or creating an off-the-shelf product. It is not precisely a negotiation, nor is it generally a full-bore collaboration.

A basic strategy for discovering an appropriate knowledge work output has three parts.

1. Defining a deliverable.

If you’ve grown up in a professional services environment, “what’s the deliverable?” gets tattooed on the inside of your eyeballs. It’s essential in professional services because it creates something tangible for which you can get paid. In any form of knowledge work the notion is valuable in that it makes something tangible out of what can otherwise be an amorphous process. A deliverable might be a spreadsheet or a presentation, an executive workshop, or a first release of a new information system; regardless, it needs to be something that both you and your customer can point to and decide that it is done.

2. Understanding how the deliverable will be used.

The most important thing to understand about a deliverable is what your customer intends to do with it. Will it be used to identify a decision to be made? Justify that decision to someone higher in the food chain? Generate or eliminate alternatives?

Each of these possible uses influences what is important about the deliverable and what is secondary or irrelevant. For example, if your customer wants to understand whether a particular technology does or doesn’t work in their current environment, a lengthy analysis of the current state of the software market isn’t likely to be relevant.

That same analysis may be the essential requirement of someone evaluating whether to introduce their technology to the market. Whether you invest in preparing the analysis depends first and foremost on whether someone needs it.

3. Determining how the deliverable can be created.

Understanding how a deliverable will be used sets limits and focuses your attention on how it should be created. An executive who needs an answer about whether to invest in a new distribution channel may prefer that answer delivered on a one-page memo. However, if your customer is that executive’s support staff, you may need to create substantial supporting analyses. Even in that case, whether you deliver that supporting analysis as a bound report, an electronic document, or organized as a series of frequently asked questions will affect both its value to the customer and its cost (to you) to create.

This three-step process must be followed for every piece of knowledge work we create. The urge to standardize outputs or processes is a holdover from industrial practices that is inappropriate in a knowledge work environment. Applied here, it risks shortcircuiting the essential interaction. We must define and deliver the unique output that integrates customer needs with your ability to create a solution.