Engagement and Authority

Three decades ago many of us thought the strong emergence of teams, especially self-regulating teams, was a shift away from authority based organizations to more engaged organizations.

From Knowledge Management to Knowledge Impact

What if our approach to Knowledge Management needs to change focus to move forward? Knowledge Management has put much attention and energy on organizing information and making it easily accessible to staff across the globe.

Welcome to Richard McDermott's blog

The intent of this blog is to offer what I hope to be thought provoking questions and fragments of ideas. I plan to avoid ideological rants, article-length tomes, or reports on my daily life, favorite things or activities. I hope you find it interesting and useful.

I plan to post occasionally, not regularly. So please don’t be disappointed if there are not daily updates.

Since I am just getting this site up now, it may take a few days for me to populate this idea space with ideas worth thinking about.

Free Your Staff to Think*

With sophisticated document management systems, global connectivity, and on-line networks professionals can find research reports, best practices, articles and experts from anywhere in the world. Because professionals have such direct access to information and people, many companies have let most of their administrative assistants go, leaving it to professionals to manage their own information. Self-service information management makes sense. No one knows better than the professionals themselves what they need. It only takes a few minutes here and there for them to “pull” the right information.

The myth of self-service

Over the last decade self-service has replaced much traditional customer service. With on-line benefits, career ladders, job posting systems, training, email, scheduling and meeting places professionals can readily manage their own careers and schedules. Online access has reshaped our personal lives as well changing how we book travel, shop, connect with friends, get informed, contribute to our favorite charities, participate in politics, even find a mate. This is good. It puts the individual information user in charge.

But every activity carries transaction costs. A decade ago, most transaction costs for managing information were carried by administrative assistants and librarians. They were visible on the balance sheer as salaries. With self-service, transaction costs of managing information appear to have fallen. But the real costs have not gone away. In fact, they've risen as they shifted from lower-cost administrative staff to professionals. But the cost is now hidden in the salaries of professional staff who start early, stay late and spend weekends checking email, searching, answering questions on discussion boards and organizing documents. Though it only takes a few minutes here and there, self-service information management consumes a significant portion of our personal and professional lives. Anyone with a slightly complex problem booking a flight on-line, seeking computer tech support, comparative shopping or using different software to participate in discussion forums, find and expert or document an insight understands how much time this consumes.  

Self-service has another consequence. It takes professionals’ attention away from their real job, which is to use information to think. Although many organizations have spent considerable resources managing knowledge, most have missed a trick; how to insure professionals have the time to turn information into insight, deepen their understanding and make judgment calls.

Create knowledge intermediaries

There are many ways to make retrieving information more efficient and free professionals to think. One has been around a long time. As part of their new knowledge management strategy, an oil company hired back the secretaries, assigned them to specific teams, redefined their role as “information managers,” trained them in library science, and formed them into a community tasked with creating continuity of information. In the US Army, combat staff contribute lessons learned from the field. Army trainers draw from these to create up-to-the-minute training for soon-to-be-deployed commanders and soldiers.

“Kit” information

What if we looked at information management through a manufacturing metaphor? When assemblers need parts we don’t ask them to go to a warehouse to pick them. We stage material in a “kit” so assemblers have only just the right material at just the right time, in a manageable number, even placed in just the right position.

A pharmaceutical company did something similar for safety scientists. Starting with the judgment calls safety scientists need to consider in each stage of development, they organized large body of information on compounds, regulations, guidelines, tests, experts and scientific findings. The specific points to consider varied at each stage of development, but the framework is consistent enough to help scientists “reach for” the right bits of information they need to make the appropriate safety judgment calls. Starting with a judgment call and working backward to the information that feeds it, organized information by the way it is going to be used.

Kitting information cues up information for professionals to use, just as kitting materials cues up materials for assemblers. But unlike traditional decision support systems, kitting leaves the choice and judgment up to knowledge professional.

Establish individual and collaborative think tanks

Fifty years ago Peter Drucker suggested that managers set aside time to think, sage advice then and even more urgent for all professionals now. Artists and athletes set aside time to practice. It’s unthinkable that they would give this time away. They use it to perfect both their technique and expression. Professionals also need reserved time to think. When one organization went to a 9-day, 9 hour week with alternative Fridays off, staff discovered that with half the staff gone, no meetings and fewer interruptions their work Fridays were very productive. A global professional services firm asks their practice communities to set aside time to collaboratively solve difficult technical problems and develop their practice. IBM’s innovation jams are also virtual thinking forums.

Thinking is the core of most professional work. What if you as a manager expected staff, communities and teams to set aside time to think – and let them know that their think time was not to be given away?

Knowledge intermediaries manage the flow, kitting structures information into relevant, easy-to-use categories and think tanks reserve time for disciplined individual and collaborative thinking. All mitigate the impact of self-service information management. There are undoubtedly many more things you can do to free your staff to think. Let me know which ones you use.

Even if you don’t have the authority or resources to free your staff to think, you can at least free yourself to think.

* Previously published in the Harvard Business Review, June 2011.

[1] McDermott & Archibald, Harnessing Your Staff’s Informal Networks, Harvard Business Review, March 2010

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