Balancing short and long term thinking in knowledge work

The Fall term is settling into its rhythm. I’ve shared my usual story of my own academic transcripts containing at least one of every possible letter grade. I was a natural, but undisciplined, student. I paid attention to meeting prerequisites for subsequent courses and meeting the requirements of my major but I didn’t think about the practicalities of how what I was learning flowed from one course to the next. More broadly, I gave little thought to the connections between what I was studying now and what I would need to know later for any value of later beyond the final.

My unexamined assumption was that whatever I learned in one class would somehow stick in my brain to be drawn on in the next class or in the future. Notes were what you did to pay attention during class and had no evident value once the exam was done. I suppose textbooks had some value in my mind as I kept those for a while. On the other hand, I don’t think I ever did much to refer back to them in subsequent classes or in the workplace.

Now, it could simply be that I was lazy. There are those who would argue for that hypothesis. Maybe everyone else was more organized and more disciplined than I and I failed to notice their better disciplines. But I suspect not.

I’ve written about the general problems of the shrinking half-life of knowledge. What’s on my mind today is the question of how to cope with that world. We have access to better tools and more processing power than I ever did in my student days. What strategies and practices for leveraging that power are possible that work in both the immediate context of a single class or a single project and contribute to knowledge that’s valuable in the longer term?

There are examples that address this question of continuity beyond the problem at hand:

Doug Engelbart’s seminal work on augmentation ought to bear on this as well. But my sense is that Engelbart doesn’t directly address the question of continuity. Time for another reread—which is itself indicative of the problem.

I’m still at the agenda setting stage. Stay tuned.

The 80 IQ point move: knowledge work as craft

I’ve long been a fan of Alan Kay. We met twenty five years ago as we were building a consulting firm that blended strategic and technology insight. One of Alan’s favorite observations is “point of view is worth 80 IQ points.” Choosing a better vantage point on tough problems is time well spent, especially when there is pressure to get on with it.

I’m not sure I can count the number of times I’ve heard or said that we live in a knowledge economy. That we are all knowledge workers who live and work in learning organizations. Yet, we continue to celebrate the industrial revolution in those organizations. We celebrate scale and growth and control. We worry about the problems of accelerating change but assume that working harder and longer will suffice to keep pace.

There is a better vantage point. It is to treat knowledge work as craft work in a technological matrix. Craft work integrates materials, tools, and practices to create artifacts that simultaneously embody the skill and expertise of crafters and meet the practical and esthetic needs of patrons.

Examining each of those elements from a craft perspective illuminates what it takes to become effective as a knowledge worker and remain so as change continues to accumulate. It’s our 80 IQ point move.

Materials – make them visible to make them manageable

Industrial work is built on repeatability; my iPhone 6 Plus is fundamentally identical to yours; any differences are cosmetic. Give me the same consulting report you prepared for your last client and we have a problem. The output of knowledge work derives value by being unique.

Knowledge work produces highly refined abstractions; a financial analysis, a project plan, a consulting report, a manuscript, or an article. A piece of knowledge work evolves from germ of an idea through multiple, intermediate representations and false starts to finished product. Today, that evolution occurs as a series of morphing digital representations which are difficult to observe and, therefore, difficult to manage and control.

A pre-digital counterexample reveals the unexpected challenges of digital work. I started consulting before the advent of the PC. When you had a presentation to prepare for a client, you began with a pad of paper and a pencil and sketched a set of slides. Erasures and cross outs and arrows made it evident you were working with a draft.

This might be two weeks before the deadline. You took that draft to Evelyn in the graphics department on the eighth floor. After she yelled at you for how little lead time you had given her, she handed your messy and marginally legible draft to one of the commercial artists in her group. They spent several days hand-lettering your draft and building the graphs and charts. They sent you a copy of their work, not being foolish enough to share their originals.

Then the process of correcting and amending the presentation followed. Copies circulated and were marked up by the manager and partner on the project. The graphics department prepared a final version. Finally, the client got to see it and you hoped you’d gotten it right.

Throughout this process, the work was visible. Junior members of the team could learn as the process unfolded and the final product evolved. You, as a consultant, could see how different editors and commentators reacted to different parts of the product.

Today’s digital tools make the journey from idea to finished product easier in many respects. When knowledge artifacts are digital, however, they are hard to see as they develop.

So what? Only the final product matters, right? What possible value is there to the intermediate versions or the component elements? Let’s return to the bygone world of paper again. Malcolm Gladwell offers an interesting observation in “The Social Life of Information:

”But why do we pile documents instead of filing them? Because piles represent the process of active, ongoing thinking. The psychologist Alison Kidd, whose research Sellen and Harper refer to extensively, argues that “knowledge workers” use the physical space of the desktop to hold “ideas which they cannot yet categorize or even decide how they might use.” The messy desk is not necessarily a sign of disorganization. It may be a sign of complexity: those who deal with many unresolved ideas simultaneously cannot sort and file the papers on their desks, because they haven’t yet sorted and filed the ideas in their head. Kidd writes that many of the people she talked to use the papers on their desks as contextual cues to “recover a complex set of threads without difficulty and delay” when they come in on a Monday morning, or after their work has been interrupted by a phone call. What we see when we look at the piles on our desks is, in a sense, the contents of our brains.”

I have friends whose digital desktops have that look about them but this strategy doesn’t readily translate to the digital realm. The physicality of paper gave us version control and audit trails as a free byproduct.

Digital tools promote a focus on final product and divert attention from the work that goes into developing that product. “Track changes” and digital Post-It notes provide inadequate support to the process that proceeds the product. Project teams employ crude naming practices in lieu of substantive version control. Software developers and some research academics have given thought to the problems of how to manage the materials that go into digital knowledge artifacts. Average knowledge workers have yet to do the same.

Visibility is the starting point. Once you make the work observable, you can make it improvable. Concepts like working papers, and audit trails, and personal knowledge management can then come into play.

Tools – Every Day Carry and Well-Equipped Digital Workshops

Where craft matters, so do tools. That got lost in the industrial revolution. Tools were carved out and attached to minute pieces of process, not to the people who wielded them with skill. Meanwhile, the raw materials of knowledge work–words, numbers, and images–did not call for much in the way of tools other than pencil and paper. Mark Twain was an innovator in adopting the typewriter to improve the quantity and quality of his output. But the mechanical tools for aiding knowledge work came to be seen as beneath the dignity of important people.

There was a time when “computers” were women charged with carrying out the menial tasks of doing the calculations men designed and oversaw. It was not that long ago when executives thought it perfectly sensible to have their email printed out and prepare their responses by hand. These attitudes interfere with our abilities to be fully effective doing knowledge work in a digital world.

There’s the old saw that to a child with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. To a skilled cabinet maker, every problem suggests a matching hammer. A well-equipped workshop might contain dozens of different types of hammers, each suited to working with particular materials or in specific situations.

If our materials are digital, then our skill with digital tools becomes a manageable aspect of our working life.

There’s a useful distinction between basic and specialty tools. A basic tool in hand beats the perfect tool back in the shop or office. I’ve carried a pocket knife since my days as a stage manager in college. Courtesy of the TSA I have to remember to leave it behind when I fly or surrender it to the gods of security theater but every other day it’s in my pocket. There is, in fact, an entire subculture devoted to discussions of what constitutes an appropriate EDC—Every Day Carry—for various occupations and environments.

In the realm of knowledge work, Every Day Carry defaults to an email client, calendar, contact manager, word processor, and spreadsheet.  For most knowledge workers, tool thinking stops here. Other than software engineers and data scientists, few knowledge workers give much thought to their tools or their effective leverage. Organizations ignore the question of whether knowledge workers are proficient with their tools

If you are judged on the quality of the artifacts that you produce, you would do well to worry about your proficiency with tools. If you have control over your technology environment, set aside time to extend your toolset and learn to use it more effectively. Invest time and thought into how to design, organize, and take advantage of a knowledge workshop filled with the tools of your digital trade. Plan for a mix of EDC, heavy duty, and experimental knowledge work tools.

Practices – Design Effective Habits

Process thinking built the industrial economy. To deliver consistent quality product, variation is designed out and all the steps are locked down and controlled. If your goal is to craft unique outputs suitable to unique circumstances, industrial process is your enemy.

Where then are the management leverage points if industrial process is not the answer? McDonalds is not the only way to run  restaurant. In a knowledge work environment, both design and management responsibilities must be more widely distributed and shared. Peter Drucker captured this when he observed that the first question every knowledge worker must ask is “what is the task?”

Answering that question entails understanding the materials and tools available. From there, knowledge workers can design approaches to creating the necessary unique knowledge artifacts. Habits, routines, rituals, and practices replace rigid processes. In a fine restaurant, the day’s fresh ingredients set the menu and the menu guides which preparation and cooking techniques will be called for that evening. Line cooks, sous chefs, and chefs collaborate to create the evening’s dining experience.

The building blocks for constructing suitably unique final products are learned over years of practice and experimentation. They are passed on through observation and apprenticeship. In a volatile knowledge economy, they must also be subject to constant evolution, refinement, and innovation.

Learning as a craft practice

In the pre-industrial craft world, learning could be a simple process. Find a master and apprentice yourself to them. Time would suffice to transfer expertise and skill from master to apprentice.

We do not live in that world.

In an industrial world, learning was focused on fitting people to the work. Open-ended apprenticeship was replaced with narrow training programs to learn the specifics of where humans fit into a larger, engineered, process design.

We do not live in that world.

Integrating a craft point of view with the pace of the technological environment that now exists makes learning a craft practice to master.

We are all permanent apprentices. We are also all permanent masters of our craft. Apprenticeship must become conscious and designed. Mastery will always be temporary. Our understanding of materials, tools, and practices will always be dynamic. Learning and performing will be in constant tension.

Developing Design Perspective

Monteiro, Mike. Ruined by Design: How Designers Destroyed the World, and What We Can Do to Fix It. Mule Books.

We live in an artificial world; most everything we interact with has been designed by another human. In Ruined by Design, Monteiro explores this territory from the perspective of a professional designer. His quest is to make the case that designers have an obligation to think beyond the immediate demands of making some idea come to life and to ask “why” questions that are going unaddressed. His claim is that

A designer uses their expertise in the service of others without being a servant. Saying no is a design skill. Asking why is a design skill. Rolling your eyes and staying quiet is not. Asking ourselves why we are making something is an infinitely better question than asking ourselves whether we can make it.

He builds a compelling case but I want to take his argument further. Asking why is a design skill. It is a design skill that we should all develop.

It is a powerful step to ask why. Children know the power of this line of inquiry. It is a power to develop not suppress, whatever the temptation as a weary parent.

Too much of our educational and organizational energy is devoted to fighting the power of “why” instead of developing and strengthening it. Monteiro’s concern is that designers have abdicated their responsibility. Mine is that we all have.

We live in a designed world. That makes all of us designers. Every choice we make about what technologies to use and how to use them is a design choice. Montiero’s target audience is professional designers; you are part of that audience.

Knowledge work effectiveness not efficiency

I started this blog in the earlyish days of blogging. I was teaching a course at Northwestern’s Kellogg School about strategic uses of information technology. The blog offered a way to share thoughts with my students. I quickly plugged into a community of like-minded bloggers in education and in knowledge work in general. In time, that network connected me to Buzz Bruggeman, CEO of ActiveWords. Buzz being Buzz, we connected and have remained friends and colleagues since. That is another story in itself.

ActiveWords is a Windows utility program. On the surface, it is a text substitution tool. Type “aw,” for example and the program will produce “ActiveWords” on the screen. It does much more than that, and there are comparable products on both Windows and Mac. When I was a Windows user, it was one of the first programs I installed on every new computer. I now use equivalents on the Mac.

But this is not a software review.

The default marketing strategy for this category of tool is to emphasize efficiency.The tools invariably come equipped with tools to calculate how much time you save by typing “aw” in place of “ActiveWords.” If you are, in fact, a reasonable touch typist, those time savings are modest. Frankly, they aren’t that great for poor typists. Yet, the people who do adopt these tools often become vocal fans and evangelists. Are theses fans simply horrible typists or are they on to something more interesting?

The marketing from efficiency argument is simple to articulate and deeply rooted in an industrial mindset. Tools are good if they make workers more efficient; Frederick Taylor opined on the size and shape of shovels to improve the efficiency of strong-backed men moving stuff from pile A to box B. Knowledge workers aren’t shoveling coal. None of us work in typing pools.

These tools and their effective (not efficient) use are better understood from the perspective of augmentation laid out by Doug Engelbart. Saving keystrokes isn’t the point; redistributing cognitive load is.

Software developers figured this out long ago and designed programming languages to handle the tedious aspects of building software so that developers could focus on the tricky bits. Bob Frankston and Dan Bricklin wrote Visicalc, the first spreadsheet program, so that they could focus on setting up the finance problem to be solved and let the computer take care of the arithmetic.

There is a conflict here to be managed between knowledge workers and conventional managers. If you are stuck in an efficiency world, you must resist the temptations to cram these approaches into an industrial frame. In an assembly line, the tools are part of the line; everyone uses the same pneumatic tools in the quest for efficiency.

Effectiveness calls for a more personal perspective. You might get away with mandating a standard set of tools —Buzz would be quite happy if Microsoft put a copy of ActiveWords on every Windows machine. But you can’t impose a standard set of abbreviations, for example, on every knowledge worker in the enterprise. That process has to be tailored to each knowledge worker’s individual needs.

Let me offer a simple example. Every time I decide to use the word “individual, ” I have to stop and think about how to spell it. That interferes with my train of thought. So, I’ve taught my Mac to transform “indv”into “individual.” The program I happed to use for this, TextExpander, will happily calculate how much time I save by typing 4 keystrokes instead of 10, but I don’t care. Maintaining my train of thought is something far more valuable than 6 keystrokes.

Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead captured this calculus long before I learned to type. He observed that:

Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them. Operations of thought are like cavalry charges in a battle—they are strictly limited in number, they require fresh horses, and must only be made at decisive moments.

What this does call for is learning to observe our own work and look for the speed bumps and other opportunities to redistribute the cognitive load.

Leading self-managed experts

Uniform cap

Twenty-some odd years ago, I had an opportunity to listen to Colin Powell speak. The event was small enough and I was senior enough that we had a useful conversation after his talk. The question I had was “how can you benefit from the experts working for you without some understanding of what they actually know and do?”

Secretary Powell’s response was that you had to rely on your ability to judge people on a human level and trust that the enterprise you were part of was able to maintain a level of quality in how it recruited, developed, and advanced its experts. I wasn’t happy with his answer then and I’ve only become more unhappy since.

In most enterprises, for most of their history, the nature of work changed slowly. In Powell’s case his job was the same from the time he was a young 2nd lieutenant until he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; defend the U.S. against the threat posed by the Soviet Union. Only the scope changed.

That world was gone when we had the conversation twenty years ago. How do you manage a sales force using Salesforce when your selling days were built around a Rolodex and a DayPlanner? How does experience interpreting focus group results prepare you to extract insight from clickstream data? Pick your domain and the flood of new knowledge obsoletes old technique and overwhelms your capacity to evaluate results on the basis of merit.

There’s a dilemma here. You can’t manage what you don’t know. You can’t know everything you need to know. What you need to know changes faster than you can keep up.

Organizations exist to solve problems that exceed the capacity of any individual. We tend to think of that as a hierarchical process. An entrepreneur hires people to carry out their vision and design. Those people are there to execute work on behalf of the entrepreneur but the implicit assumption is that the entrepreneur could do all the tasks given sufficient time.

This was Colin Powell’s world. He might not know all the details of his subordinates work but he could. He was willing to trust their recommendations because he trusted the system. What if he can’t understand the recommendations? Or the alternatives?

The military sidesteps this problem with a useful workaround—commander’s intent. Commanders share the reasoning and goals being their orders. That allows subordinates to make local decisions applying their expertise to accomplish “commander’s intent” even if that might mean ignoring or contradicting the specifics of the commander’s orders.

In our expertise saturated environment, we need to create a bilateral form of commander’s intent. Knowledge intensive work in a volatile environment comes with the requirement to teach others how to understand and make sense of your work.

“Trust me” is not an option in either direction. Success depends on getting meaningful conversation to take place about the competing claims of all the stakeholders.

Contributing to this conversation places different demands depending on your role.

If you are an expert, you must understand the organizational decisions your expertise bears on. You must then be able to articulate the assumptions and limitations that constrain your options and your recommendations. The A/B testing of copy on your e-commerce site tells you nothing about the people who never visit your site.

If you are a leader, your goals need to include sharing the reasoning behind the answers you seek. In fact, you ought to stop thinking of experts as the people who provide answers. In time-stressed settings, it is always tempting to seek focus and clarity by seeking to confirm your intuitions. Executives ask for answers to their immediate problems. The counterintuitive yet more useful strategy in volatile environments is to collaborate with your experts to articulate and explore questions you have not thought to ask.

Design Insight Continued

Synchronicity is real.

It’s always more rewarding when you discover that your thinking is in the same general vicinity as someone smart. Turns out Nancy Dixon has also been thinking about how to learn from experience. Her predictably excellent post focuses on pragmatic guidance on what it takes for an organization to be able to learn from its experience together with some very practical techniques to do so. Central to her analysis is the role of continuing conversation among peers and the importance of generative questions in those conversations.

Nancy’s advice is neutral with respect to what those conversations should be about, which was the thread I was trying to work out in my previous post.

The accelerating rate of change expands the focus of what you seek to extract from experience. We’ve grown accustomed to a simple equation that treats experience as templates or patterns to be copied onto new situations with minor tweaks and modifications. This is the world of startups seeking to be the “Uber of X” or the “Amazon of Y.” It is the world of countless copycats of Henry Ford all seeking to do what Ford did only better, faster, or cheaper.

The glib analysis of accelerating change is that experience is irrelevant to innovation. The Ubers and Amazons and Googles of the world all spring forth independently of prior experience. Stated baldly, this is nonsense. But it does leave us with figuring out how experience might play a role and brings us back to peer to peer conversations and generative questions.

My conjecture is that experience must be unpacked and fed into design processes that will lead to new processes and practices. The concrete particulars of experience will need to be actively abstracted into design principles and patterns. Experience then becomes the fuel that drives new innovations and practices.

Mine experience for design insight

What’s the value of experience in the rapidly changing world we inhabit?

This isn’t a new question. Mark Twain raised it over a century ago:

We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it and stop there lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove lid again and that is well but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore.

Experience matters when it offers insight into what action to take next. In a slower world, the insights can be treated as scripts to execute because we know that they work. We may not particularly care why they work if the world is stable enough.

Change makes old scripts obsolete. At one extreme we can adopt Mark Zuckerberg’s observation that “I want to stress the importance of being young and technical…young people are just smarter.” Ignore experience, move fast, break things, hope your IQ points manage to mesh with where the world is going. It’s difficult to argue with Zuckerberg’s success. On the other hand, Facebook is now constrained by its own history and experience. Experience remains a factor.

If change happens too fast for experience to be packaged into scripts, how do we then leverage experience? My hypothesis is that the answer lies in actively processing experience. I think this is part of the argument for knowledge management. However, knowledge management approaches in many organizations focus on accumulating and organizing experience without real processing. They are anchored in an assumption that simple access to experience will be sufficient.

The value of experience in a rapidly changing world is to reveal patterns that can be mined for principles that in turn feed the design of possible responses.

Keeping not knowing in mind

The tag line for this blog is a quote from Dorothy Parker, “the cure for boredom is curiosity, there is no cure for curiosity.” I chose it on a whim when I started this experiment while I was teaching at the Kellogg School.

Curiosity is not a popular trait in many circles. Serious professionals are expected to keep curiosity in check, on a short leash in pursuit of clear, focused, objectives. That’s an expectation that has fallen out of sync with the environment we live in. We need to be more curious, not less, in the world we inhabit.

One consequence of cultivating curiosity is that we need to become comfortable with not knowing. This can be surprisingly difficult. Most of the settings we operate in reward the appearance of knowing. In school, we are evaluated and rewarded for demonstrating our knowledge not our ignorance. So too in the world of work. “I don’t know” is seen as an admission of weakness, when it ought to be celebrated as a sign of strength.

To be an effective leader in this world we need to keep not knowing in mind. For all the knowledge and answers we accumulate, we need to stay familiar with not knowing. This is an active process not a passive one. It is not enough to acknowledge that there are things we don’t know and then stay comfortably within the boundaries of what we do know. We need to seek out the edges and wander across them.

Serving my time – learning to teach

Early in my career I knew a little bit and was effective because I was always asking annoying questions to fill in the gaps in my knowledge. In the middle, I thought I knew a fair bit but was often reluctant to share what I did know. The problem then was that I knew enough to realize how much there was to know and knew there was always an expert somewhere who knew more than I did.

Today, I know a good deal, know that I know it, and know how much more always remains to learn. I’ve become more comfortable with the fluctuating balance between knowledge and ignorance. I’ve relearned to be comfortable raising questions, whether out of knowledge or ignorance.

I’ve gotten over the desire to demonstrate that I am the smartest person in the room. Which is good because that happens far less frequently than I once believed it did.

One particular blessing in my development was the chance to work with Tim Gallwey. Tim is the author of The Inner Game of Tennis, which explores how the way we think affects how we act.

One of the central lessons from my work with Tim was how I thought about what it means to be a coach or a teacher. I started with the naive but typical view that a teacher was someone who knew more. Tim offered a more powerful perspective.

It hit home for me during a session on the tennis court. I played decently enough that the court served as a good laboratory to understand Tim’s methods and point. He asked what I would like to work on that morning.

“I’d like to learn how to put spin on my serve.”

“That’s a good idea, Jim. Spin is a useful tool, especially for a left-hander like you. How much spin is on your serve now?”

Excellent question! “Tim, I have no idea.”

“Why don’t you hit a few serves for me? As you do, give me a number between 1 and 5 for how much spin you think you’ve put on the serve.”

I hit some serves and called out my guesses. Tim’s only action at that point was to correct my answers.

“That was more of a 3 than a 4. Yes, that one was a 2.”

What Tim was doing was increasing and calibrating my capacity to observe my performance. It didn’t matter what Tim could see in my serve until he could help me see for myself.

My friend, Alan Kay, likes to say that “Point of view is worth 80 IQ points.” This moment with Tim was when I began to see a deeper level to Alan’s dictum. Finding a better perspective is powerful. Getting others to see from that same vantage multiplies power.

Tim was showing me how to use expert knowledge to help someone else reach a new perspective. Which, of course, starts with empathy not expertise.

Two elements of that, which I’ve found valuable, are remembering what not knowing feels like and looking for blinders built into the current vantage point. Both of which are worthy of their own exploration. Stay tuned.

Managing in a magical world

Application and software vendors are offering more customer support in places like Facebook in addition to their more formal channels. Done well, this enlists volunteer help from users, recreating some of the feel from the earlier days of the online world where there was often a strong sense of shared community.

In those earlier days, there was a threshold level of technical sophistication that you could rely on. As the internet began to open up, that level began to drop slowly. A community ethos and slow broadening of participation led to some excellent advice on how to take full advantage of the available expertise. For my own selfish benefit, I pulled together several of the best guidelines for seeking technical advice:

As I reread these guides, however, and sampled the recurring questions surfacing in some of these more recent support environments, I was struck by a disconnect between today’s questions and these guides. In tech support circles, there is an old, disparaging, term about certain kinds of user interactions—PEBKAC, which is an acronym for “Problem Exists Between Keyboard and Chair.” In other words, the problem is user ignorance .

That feels a tad arrogant. It calls to mind the late Arthur C. Clarke’s 3rd Law:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

and what is perhaps a more pertinent variation offered by science fiction author Gregory Benford:

Any technology distinguishable from magic is insufficiently advanced.

We operate in a world that is magical to many of it’s inhabitants. Most are content to accept that world as a place of routine magic. But too many are also content to choose to operate at Muggles; to leave understanding the magic to others. To make that choice is to reject the notion that deeper knowledge is a path to more effective leverage of the available tools.

If we accept the responsibility of learning how the magic works, we open up the possibility of acquiring greater power over our world.