Working as a "Knowledge Worker" in the Information Age

By: Peter Garas

The old adages: "It's not what you know, but who you know" and "High Tech, High Touch" could be the mottos of knowledge workers in the 21st Century.

Never before in the history of the world has both networking and interpersonal communication been potentially easier, broader, more wide-spread and paradoxically, more difficult.

The access to people and information in the information age is without parallel in history. The same technology which has enabled this to happen, has also reduced the time between communications from weeks to seconds.

There is simply no officially available time within which to conduct the communications on which networking and interpersonal contacts depend. The time that people used to spend thinking and crafting their communications and interacting is now at a premium. While the volume of communications has expanded exponentially so too has, what I can only refer to as 'noise'. Noise, being communications whose content is usually less than useful and in many nstances banal and not useful at all.

Most of what appears in the journals, in public forums and in discussions describes new forms of work place organisation that assume solid support from the institution in which they form.

Coherent groups which used to be called "self interest" groups and are now re-badged and called "communities of interest" or "expert groups" or 'learning communities" or 'quality circles" or "virtual teams" or "communities of practice".

Groups which do receive official encouragement and institutional support are usually not only unsuccessful, but in many instances, actively resented by the participants who are often "selected" by their senior management colleagues to attend.

The resentment appears to be based on the fact that the individual has not self selected the people with whom he/she would like to communicate, this choice is made for him/her by management. Generally there is:

  • no assessment about whether the person is the 'right person' for the discussion and/or topic under discussion;

  • no attempt to undertake any ice breaker exercises when the groups first meet to try and ensure that there is a sufficient and necessary breakdown of the interpersonal barriers to communication; and

  • no attempt to realise or rationalise the differing political agendas that each individual has been sent to present to the meeting by his/her administrative supervisor.

The means by which these groups are set up and managed, presents a barrier to its success. This is generally not acknowledged by the management that keeps on setting up these groups, usually because they have read a little in the literature and skimmed the information, found a good idea and then without in depth knowledge about what they are doing, launched their next management 'fad'.

It is interesting to observe, by way of contrast, that those groups that self create and self moderate and do NOT include the management layer at all within their constructs, seem to do very well and achieve a lot. There is however a downside which is a period during which the original purpose of the gathering has been achieved and the group struggles to find a new 'raison d'étre' to continue because they value the interactions, the mutual upports and the 'tick tacking' discussions which add value to each person's understanding by leveraging the understanding and/or perceptions of the others in the group. Most often than not, this fails and the group engages in a process that is like 'swirling'. It disbands, members keep their contacts alive and when a new reason for meeting emerges then some of the original group reforms involving others in the group as their interests and/or expertise comes to bear.

The work which actually takes place behind the scenes to maintain contact and to keep supporting each other is intensive, hidden and generally not reported in any way within existing reporting structures or performance reporting tools.

It can take up at least 1/3 of a working day. How it is factored into information lodged within tool suites that attempt to record work to funded projects is one of the most well kept secrets used by most staff.

The reports that these groups make to management, with their usually innovative and practical suggestions are probably the best form of intelligence the organisation could harvest. There is unfortunately serious resistance from the senior management layer to receiving and considering the information, because it is perceived as having come from what are described as 'feral' groups within the organisation. Cynics in the work place usually ascribe this reaction to senior managers being miffed that they cannot claim kudos from the work because they did not even know it was happening.There are companies around the world who reward and indeed fund 'feral' behaviour. One company for example has created the 'thief of the year' award. It is given the person who can find something in the public domain which he/she then leverages to substantially improve the corporate bottom line. The same company also funds its staff to go off line and develop a productive idea at full pay for a period of six months. If they succeed then they are rewarded and the company gets the benefit of their work. If they fail then they are sacked or at minimum placed into work situations where their independence is considerably constrained for an extended period. This usually puts the intrapreneur on his her mettle and forces a risk management approach to the innovation cycle before choosing to try out that idea and increases the pressure to succeed once the choice has been made.

The reality for most workers is that the many manifestations of organisational change - downsizing, outsourcing, merging, splitting, acquiring, partnering, and the constant redrawing of internal boundaries, responsibilities and organisational charts leads to situations in which it is increasingly difficult for workers to turn to established role based structures in their organisations when they need labour or information. It is in these conditions that workers leverage their own personal networks rather than relying on unstable and weakening organisation charts. Workers are empowered only if they are successful at creating and maintaining their own personal social networks. The work of networking really is 'invisible work' which is not accounted for in workflow diagrams or performance evaluations.

In the past, employees worked for relatively long periods in 'communities of practice' (Wenger, 1988) within which they built up expertise in the details of their jobs. "Research on communities of practice has documented a number of important characteristics of this style of work: workers operated within clearly defined organizational and social roles, they were highly familiar with one another and shared considerable social, cultural and organizational knowledge that served as a backdrop for work and interaction. Workers were generally, (but not always) co-located, making it possible to have frequent interpersonal communications that contributed to the creation of shared knowledge, and facilitated the smooth execution of work tasks." (Kraut et al., 1993; Whittaker et al., 1994; Nardi and Engeström, 1999) - Quoted in "It's Not What You Know, It's Who You Know: Work in the Information Age." Nardi, Bonnie A.; Whittaker, Steve; Schwarz, Heinrich 2001

Recent management literature has documented that these working conditions are rapidly becoming obsolete. One of the consequences of these organisational and technical changes is that in many companies and organisations operations are conducted in an increasingly 'distributed' manner - i.e. where the workers, contractors, consultants, and important contacts can be distributed across the organisation and indeed the world. In this sort of environment, workers experience stresses such as:

  • remembering who is in the network;

  • knowing what people in the network are currently doing;

  • where they are located;

  • choices among the many forms of media means to communicate effectively with people;

  • being mindful to 'keep in touch' with contacts who may prove useful in the near or distant future.

In contrast to the personal network view, the bulk of the management literature on work place organisation reflects a team based approach. This literature generically seems to assume that workers go about their business in teams with clearly defined and stable roles, functions and responsibilities. In much the same way, there is a further assumption that organisations have predictable, stable structures.

In listening to people in at least one large Commonwealth organisation both of these assumptions are invalid. Other researchers report similar viewpoints in many other bureaucracies, for example: Fisher and Fisher, 1998; Lloyd and Boyle 1998, Jarvenapaa and Leidner, 1999, Mark, Grudin and Poltrock, 1999.

In this brief overview what is being suggested is that management groups re-appraise their directions and consider whether their official structures are delivering the outcomes which were predicted and/or imagined and then explore whether the vitality of unleashing and supporting underground, feral or more 'neural' networks offer a better direction.


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