Management Thinking

Were You Trained as a Knowledge Worker?

Like it or not, your work world, and the work world of the next generation, is changing.  And I’ll bet you were not trained for it.

Current work and future work are founded in knowledge work.  As Peter Drucker taught us in the 1960s, knowledge work is different from the routine work of 60 or 75 years ago.

  • It engages our brains more than our bodies.
  • It involves working in teams in interdependent ways.
  • It is difficult, if not impossible, to manage knowledge work in traditional ways.

I want to explore this third aspect of knowledge work further because it has subtle implications on how we need to approach work and personal work management.  I’ll start by explaining three of the assumptions of traditional management.  I’ll focus on one of them and it’s implications on our self-management training and practices.

Traditional management was designed to manage routine work.  Routine work is observable, thus traditional management relies on observation.  Factories were designed to make routine work tasks as independent as possible, so teamwork was not required.  Managers who designed the factory knew best how to perform routine work within it.

All three of these assumptions have important implications on how we need to approach work in the 21st century, but I’ll focus on the third in this post – the boss knows best.

Traditional management is built on the assumption that the higher you rise in the organization, the better you understand how to solve organizational or customer problems.  As you rise through the traditional organization, you learn more broadly about the firm and it’s operations. On the other hand, the lower your position in the hierarchy, the more you get told what to do and how to do it.  From the perspective of the worker, this aspect of traditional management can be both annoying and comforting.

The annoying part is constantly being told what to do and lacking freedom. Being under the control of another person is a challenge for anyone.   Every worker has, at one time or another, accused the boss of “micromanaging.”  This is a typical response when the worker disagrees with how the manager wants the job done.  However, in traditional management, the boss actually had a claim to better knowledge and the employee was more successful when doing work the way the boss wanted it done.

The more subtle, comforting part of this tacit arrangement is that the worker does not have to take much responsibility for the results of actions they were told to do, decisions made by the manager, and schedules set by the manager.  After all, the best excuse for a problem is “you told me to” – just ask my kids.  In the former economy, many workers simply didn’t have to take much responsibility for outcomes.  This is, in some ways, a comforting thing for the worker.

Now that we have moved into a knowledge work economy, and organizations are pushing authority down the hierarchy, the annoyance of being under the control of the boss is decreasing.  Workers have increasing freedom on what to do, how to get it done, and when to do it.  To the degree that workers are aware of this change, they usually celebrate their increasing freedom.

But the comforting part, having little responsibility, is also changing.  Increasingly, workers are being given responsibility for the outcomes of their actions and choices.  To the degree that workers are aware if this change, they are less thrilled about their increasing responsibility.

This change in freedom and responsibility in the workplace represents a challenge to our self-management processes and habits.  Firms are increasingly expecting employees to be able to manage themselves.  However, most of our current workforce has not been trained in self-management.  Think back on how well you were trained in this area…

  • Were you taught how to prioritize between two good activities?
  • Were you taught how to plan a project?
  • Were you taught how to manage the information that would help you make a choice later?
  • Were you taught to take action on your own, based on information you generated?

Or did you develop your self-management knowledge on your own, through experience?  If so, have you thought carefully about how well your practices work? Have you experimented with your practices? Are you actively trying to improve them?

I think self-management is an area in which we can dramatically improve our productivity, if we challenge some long-held assumptions and seriously assess our practices. The current work environment is calling us to do so.

Question: As a knowledge worker, how do you manage these new challenges?  Whether you were trained to do so or developed your own methods, tell us how and where in the comments.