Coupling & Crosstalk: Knowledge worker or knowledge serf?

Coupling & Crosstalk is my column in the MEPTEC Report. This column appears in the 
Winter 2018 edition on pages 8-9.

Electronic coupling is the transfer of energy from one circuit or medium to another. Sometimes it is intentional and sometimes not (crosstalk). I hope that this column, by mixing technology and general observations, is thought provoking and “couples” with your thinking. Most of the time I will stick to technology but occasional crosstalk diversions may deliver a message closer to home.

Knowledge worker or knowledge serf?

“I want to chat with you but first I need a few moments to finish a computer task I’m working on. Rats! Why doesn’t it work? Hmm, the last time I did this was a year ago. Nothing seems the same, I first must untangle my brain from what appears to be non-standard logic and useless updates.”

Have you tried to figure out how you did something last time by attempting to recreate your steps? You know exactly what you want to do, however you no longer remember exactly how. Or worse, you’ve made notes of the steps but the software or system has changed so you need to figure it out again.

This happens regularly with TurboTax which I rarely use except during tax season, I either forget to make necessary adjustments, or worse, how to make them. And the built-In “guidance” system isn’t terribly helpful. The same goes with some of the more specialized commands in common programs like Microsoft Office or Adobe Photoshop. You most often use a small set of functions so things “just work”. But the moment you start trying to use the more complex functions, unless you use them regularly, you need to figure it out all over again. Pivot tables anyone? Level adjustment curves? And don’t get me started on the foibles of “specialized” software like QuickBooks where I’ve learned far more about how it works than actual accounting. When I get done with some daunting task I often wonder if I’m a skilled analyst or just a slave to a system.

In 1959, Peter Drucker coined the term “Knowledge Worker” to describe occupations that are distinct from manual labor, the value comes out of the application of knowledge and problem solving. “Office work” is knowledge work but performed at differing levels of value. Clearly when professionals such as engineers, programmers, architects, lawyers, and physicians are actually adding value that is “highest value knowledge work”. And clerical tasks can be knowledge work, albeit of lower value, when they require judgment and knowledge to complete appropriately.

The issue is that sometimes professionals are forced to spend more time in low to no value activity than in actual knowledge work. Once the diagnosis is made and the course of treatment set, a doctor entering the data for a prescription by a physician is simply clerical effort. Worse would be a doctor sorting out an insurance issue that is a necessary but non-value added activity.

As a professional what are your choices when faced with a low value and often repetitive task? Do it yourself (DIY), delegate, automate, or choose to not do it. Avoiding or deferring indefinitely is effectively choosing not to do it. A clear ‘no’ is better since there is a conscious decision that can be communicated. Human nature does not like saying, or hearing, no but it is a skill all professionals should develop. This can help for some things, but not everything can be declined – for example taxes.

DIY unfortunately is the most common solution for many professionals especially when they want it done right. Or when the other options are too painful or impractical. I don’t like doing my personal taxes but I’ve found it is far easier to get them done correctly the first time rather than having my accountant “help me”. He would simply ask me for all the data like TurboTax does and I’d still have to review and consider my options.

Successful delegation of a task requires both a resource that you trust to do it correctly and a clear definition of what needs to be done. Anything else is a recipe for potential disaster. Having a resource available is obvious but without complete trust, you’ll be following up, checking the process, or the results. And the definition needs to be precise and complete. Unlike personal taxes, the complexity of my business taxes and the “black and white” availability of the data via the aforementioned QuickBooks, permits me to entrust the entire process to a specialist: my accountant – a trusted, skilled knowledge worker!

Delegation can be an informal or a formal process. It runs from casually asking someone to lend a hand to making a detailed request of someone whose job it is to run a process. Even when it is someone’s full time job, the results will vary if the trust and definition aren’t complete. Humans can be good but not perfect in terms of repeatability and consistency. I’ve written plenty of International Standards Organization (ISO) 9000 and 13485 procedures for general manufacturing and medical devices that were later discovered to not being followed consistently. Management must commit to each critical step or specification being checked multiple times by different people and processes. Otherwise, problems could slip through. And preparation for the required ISO audits are always extensive and can include a lot of re-training and manual “cleanup”. Why? People are not machines.

So let us automate it! The great news is once it is automated it will be repeatable and the solution should scale. Unfortunately, this is not as easy or straightforward as it should be due to intertwined cost and implementation issues. The challenge is how to implement the right tools that capture or ‘encode’ the processes and make them efficient. The ideal situation is to build on your own professional experience and judgment with the expertise and guidance of a consultant who understands the specific needs of your industry plus the advantages and limitations of existing software.

Even when there may be focused solutions for a specific industry, they may be too costly or require the business to change its own processes to conform to the software. At one startup I assisted in a close look at a configuration management / document control system. Though the software licenses were reasonably priced, we did not have the full-time person required to run and customize the system. At another company, executive management decided we should implement a very well-known customer relationship manager (CRM) platform. The effort to transition our existing solutions to this tool were overwhelming. And the cost of customization far exceeded the budget, so it was never properly configured to be really useful to the organization. As a result, it was never truly adopted by the team.

In general, implementing tools for professionals and smaller organization is problematic. For example, Business Process Automation (BPA) software is designed to automate business processes and day to day activities. However, it is currently an immature field with no clear winners.

What professionals and small businesses need are tools that have the ease of use of Microsoft Office along with a significant user base and open data standards. Unfortunately, the current trend towards cloud-based applications that are “walled gardens” is not promising. Yes, the user or their company is freed from managing the application and they gain pervasive access. However, companies end up at the mercy of the supplier since updates including changes in functionality are forced by the supplier. It is very rare for a web application to ask the user which version they wish to run. Sometimes key functionality is removed without notice. And with limited data access and no data standards, the user may find it difficult if not impossible to transfer to a different solution should the need arise.

So the quandary that needs to be solved is how do professionals lead organizations that build and maintain sustainable processes? There needs to be a mix of resources available to trust with delegated tasks and automated solutions. With the frequent shortage of qualified talent and with the ability to scale, automated solutions are the direction of the future. Professionals will need to pick their battles and select where to wisely invest in information technology and automation. Due to the expertise required, the professionals themselves and trusted consultants will be required to implement these automated solutions. The right automation tools are required to scale a business and enable people to deliver consistent products and services. Without these the professional will become little more than a knowledge serf!

As always, I look forward to hearing your comments directly. Please contact me to discuss your thoughts or if I can be of any assistance.