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Tool-and-Die Makers in a Knowledge Economy

The full potential of tools to support knowledge work remains unrealized

by Jim McGee


Tool-and-die makers topped the pecking order in blue-collar organizations. These craftspeople made work on the shop floor easier and more productive by creating the tools, dies, jigs, and fixtures that less-skilled workers used. They served as an innovative and necessary organizational bridge between craft work and industrial standardization.

Knowledge work differs from industrial work in many dimensions, chief among them the importance of striving for uniqueness in output. At the same time, technology tools that support aspects of knowledge work proliferate. Unfortunately, there has been little attention to what organizational roles might contribute to better realizing the opportunity inherent in those tools. Examining the role of tool-and-die makers in connecting the worlds of craft and industrial work can yield insight into how comparable roles might meld craft, industrial, and knowledge perspectives to make knowledge work more effective—both organizationally and individually.

Productivity improvement drove economic improvement throughout the 20th century. The gain came from the analysis and redefinition of jobs and tasks, generally with the goal of streamlining and simplifying the work steps required to produce a standardized output. Often, this analysis led to replacing traditional general-purpose craft tools with specially designed tools optimized for specific tasks and permitted companies to employ less-skilled individuals to perform those better-defined tasks. Frederick Taylor‘s strategy of scientific management allowed companies to find the single best way to do a particular job.

One element of defining and simplifying jobs depended on creating a new, specialized organizational role: the tool-and-die maker. Often the best craft workers from the previous economy, these were individuals with both wide and deep knowledge of tools and of the process of using tools to solve unexpected problems. Successful organizations defined a way to use those skills with greater leverage than was possible in a craft economy. Instead of creating final product, tool-and-die makers became responsible for building tools and fixtures (dies, jigs. etc.) to increase the productivity of the remaining work force that possessed less craft skill. This organizational innovation used the craft skills of the best workers to reduce or eliminate the need for craft skill in the rest of the organization. The organizational innovation attacked the problem at a different level.

In knowledge-work organizations, technology and tools have proliferated, seeking similar gains in productivity for knowledge work. What those organizations don’t yet have is the knowledge-work equivalent of tool-and-die makers. They have not made the necessary organizational innovations to realize the productivity potential of new technology and tools.

The range of skills in making effective use of new tools is wide. Not all knowledge workers are equally adept at realizing the potential benefits built into the capabilities of the tools and technology. In today’s organizations, those displaying the most skill and insight with new tools for knowledge work focus on improving their personal productivity. There is no organizational role or payoff for making fellow knowledge workers more productivity and effective.

What might knowledge-organization equivalents of tool-and-die makers do? Continuing the analogy with early industrial organizations, much of the investment in technology and process to support knowledge work has focused on the equivalent of setting up factories and assembly lines. For all the tools available, there has been little attention on how to enable knowledge workers of varying skills to use them effectively. While most technology tools possess a variety of features—templates, macro/scripting languages, rules engines, stylesheets—useful in creating better knowledge work outputs with less effort, few tool users think in terms of how to employ those features. Few organizations think of how they might benefit from those same capabilities.

Applying the tool-and-die maker strategy, knowledge organizations should identify individuals particularly adept at applying tool and technology features to simplifying their own work and give them a new goal of improving the productivity and effectiveness of their knowledge-work colleagues. The knowledge work of these “toolsmiths” would be to understand the knowledge work of others and apply Taylor’s principles of scientific management; to observe how knowledge workers currently worked and to identify, design, and deploy new tools and techniques to make it possible to perform the same work with less effort or produce better-quality deliverables on demand.

For example, they might define style sheets and report templates that would allow fellow workers to produce reports whose “look and feel” was uniform and consistent without each worker needing to learn the formatting intricacies of their word processors. In addition to developing the templates, these toolsmiths would also need to teach others how to use the templates correctly, but in the end, the organization would obtain better-quality deliverables with less overall effort.

Good candidates for these toolsmith roles would understand the knowledge work of their organizations and understand the features and productivity functions of the available tools. More importantly, good candidates would possess an attitude toward knowledge work best described as "diligent laziness." Rather than diving straightaway into a task, potential toolsmiths seek ways in which both the task and tools can be modified or adapted to eliminate repetitive elements and drudge work. They employ a mental calculus to assess whether there is enough work to warrant writing a spreadsheet macro instead of simply plowing ahead. Those who do would be better deployed to aid the organization as a whole, not just improve their individual productivity.

Making an investment in knowledge-work toolsmiths does not have to be done organization-wide. For most organizations, a better strategy would to be focus on groups within the organization doing relatively similar knowledge work and identify toolsmith candidates within each group. The unrealized productivity potential can be tapped in an orderly fashion, not all at once.

While knowledge intensive organizations have invested in tools and technology with the potential to improve productivity, they have not made the corresponding investment in organizational roles to realize that potential. The fundamental lesson from tool-and-die makers is that one excellent use of your best knowledge workers is to focus their talent on raising the productivity of their colleagues.

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