Knowledge workers have been an emerging class over the last 20 years or so. While manufacturing, retail and service industries are fairly easy to define and understand, ‘knowledge work’ isn’t really an industry unto itself. It sits across these other areas and is primarily found in upper management, where people are looking for innovation in order to gain strategic advantage.
But it’s not just for upper management. Anyone who needs to rely on their experience and training to perform a task is in knowledge management. A nice definition from Thomas Davenport is that knowledge workers are people who ‘think for a living’.
Knowledge workers spend 38% of their time searching for information. They are also often displaced from their bosses, working in various departments and time zones or from remote sites such as home offices (Mcdermott 2005).
Because of this emphasis on thought and analysis, there are fundamental differences between people who excel in knowledge work and those who prefer more traditional roles.
The traditional manager staff relationship is a fairly typical hierarchy. The manager makes decisions and the workers execute them. It is squeaky clean military efficiency (at least as an ideal). There is also a lot of symbolic overlap with the traditional family structure. Management often use the rhetoric of a family. The management team provides leadership and structure. They help staff grow and develop.
This is quite a reasonable approach in retail, manufacturing and other areas where workers are employed to learn and perform specific, repeatable tasks. While innovation is loosely encouraged, the reality is that any innovation will slow things down (at least in the short term). The key emphasis, at least for lower levels, is to stay the steady course. Changes are introduced from above and staff are retrained when required.
Managers who find themselves with a team of knowledge workers will find little comfort in traditional management tomes. And the ones who don’t realise they need to approach things differently will soon find out the hard way. Either their team will get frustrated and leave, or they will find themselves out managed.
So why don’t the traditional techniques work?
The trouble is that there is a fundamental difference in the way knowledge workers approach their work. Knowledge workers aren’t in their job to simply perform a function. They are there to contribute. They are fascinated by challenges and they don’t put up with the status quo ‘just because’. If something is wrong or broken, they will put their full force behind finding a solution – regardless of whether it’s their job or not.
People often refer to dealing with these sorts of people as ‘like herding cats’. You might get them all going in the same direction for a little while, but soon enough you will find them wandering off in different directions.
So how do you manage these people?
Firstly, it’s important to remember that they shouldn’t be monitored and controlled in the traditional way because their jobs are not about operational efficiency (at least in the traditional sense). They are about providing unique and innovative results. If you force them down a particular path they will wonder why you even bothered to hire them in the first place.
Give them parameters and reasons. Yes it might take a bit longer to delegate a task this way, but the results will astound you. Tell them what results you need. Note that I said results, I didn’t say product or solution. What is the underlying need you are trying to fill.
Instead of saying “we need 3 pages for the website” think a little bit harder about what you’re really after. Why the website, why 3 pages? What you are really after is a 10% increase in awareness, or 5 more sales per month. These are your needs. New pages for the website is simply one way to get there.
So, give them the real challenge. And give them the reasons for it. “If we don’t get 5 more sales this quarter we are going to have to cut some staff”. This is a real problem with real consequences. Make sure they know the boundaries (with resources and politics). For example, “We only have $2,000 for this project and the CEO wants to be able to see the impact the website is having on sales”.
Now for the hard part. Let them loose. And I mean really let them go. Sure, you can check in to see how things are going, but often there isn’t much to share in the early stages. A lot of this time is spent researching, brainstorming and stewing. If you push too hard to early for results you will get half-baked ideas and very unsatisfied staff.
I once worked for a manager who insisted that no matter what people were working on, they must be in the office from 9-5. Her logic? If I can see them I can control them (and interrupt them whenever it suits me).
My task was to develop training material for small business accounting practices. Even though I explained numerous times that to get this done I needed long periods of uninterrupted time and that working from my home office was 40-50% more productive, she was adamant that the work should be done in the office. Now if you have ever tried to write creative content, you will understand that it is not a 9-5 process. You wake up at 3:00am with the seed of an idea and if it’s a good one it can prompt a 10-14 hour burst of productivity. And sometimes the ideas don’t flow at all, so you need to leave the space and put your mind to something else for a while (for me gardening usually does the trick).
So what was the result of this conflict? Well, for starters the training material took 12 weeks longer than originally planned. It turned out ok, but it lacked the depth and creativity that I love to put into my work.
And at the end of the project, I submitted my resignation. But I wasn’t the only one. All of the talented people who worked under her are now gone. They have moved on places that understand work-life balance and the value of having a trusting and collaborative relationship throughout all levels.
We simply were not willing to put up with her attitude. We wanted to do our best work and she was getting in the way. When you have knowledge workers, the real job of a manager is more facilitator than boss. You need to keep your team focused on the final results and help them deal with the obstacles that come up along the way. Your key phase is “what do you need to get this work done?”. Work with them to fin solutions to their problems and share the credit at the end.
If you do this, you will find yourself swimming with the tide rather than against it.
You have to trust your knowledge workers. You’re relying on their brains to get what you need, not their hands. Develop a trusting, collaborative relationship with your knowledge workers and you’ll have them for life. Treat them like responsible adults who understand consequences.
Yes, occasionally you will come across people trying to take advantage of you, but they are pretty easy to spot. The overuse jargon to sound important, never give credit to others for ideas and are typically sickly sweet to the managers but aren’t very popular with their co-workers. You will have to get rid of these people. If left to their own devices they will poison the culture and your key talent will leave.
Side note to Senior Managers and Execs: Look for these patterns in middle management as well. If your team leaders are constantly loosing staff but always have a ready answer and a finger to point, you’re probably looking at the real problem.
A bit of a long article, but I hope it helps provide frustrated managers with a bit of insight into why they find knowledge workers a challenging bunch. If you get the formula right, you can really start to harness the power of these highly talented but difficult to manage types. They’ll keep you on your toes, but it will be worth it!
Further reading on Knowledge Workers: