“Tell me again, what is it that you actually do for a living?” Asked my Dad for the umpteenth time. For an 80 year old who left school at 14 and worked until he was 75 with racehorses, he found it difficult to get to grips with how someone like me spends his day and why any sane person would pay me to do it. At the end of the conversation, he remarked, exasperated, “that doesn’t sound like work, it sounds like pinching money”.
With attitudes like these is there any wonder that so many knowledge workers feel disillusioned in the work they do. As Lucy Kellaway pointed out in the Financial Times on May 11th 2008 in her article “Aim Low To Find Meaning In Work”, she has found that there seems to be a widespread melancholia in the work place. Or at least with the people who read her newspaper.
It should not be like this. 40 years ago Peter Druker, the management sage, saw that we were entering a new age, an age of the knowledge worker. He said in the Harvard Business Review November-December 1969 that the great management task of the late 20th century would be “to make knowledge work productive ……….. just as to make manual work productive was the great management task of the last century”.
So how successful have we been. Clearly there has been some progress in knowledge workers productivity. We have seen the application of Taylorist techniques. In some areas this has been a success. For example call centres where the use of IT systems combined with productivity measures has led to a whole new industry being created. There has been a massive increase in personal productivity software, such that we all now produce our own documents to a level of a junior typist. We can add up a row of numbers as quick as an accounts clerk could do. Finally, we can all produce presentations to bore our colleagues and customers at the click of a button using helpful templates.
There is an interesting paradox here though. As the number of what we used to call white-collar workers seem to rise inexorably what they seem to produce does not. It is often difficult to see what they are actually doing. Like me, in my Dad’s eyes, are they working, or just pinching money?
Let’s look at a concrete example, the line manager who drives a Toyota car, for instance. In the last 10 years his car will be significantly cheaper and significantly more reliable. The management information he receives will probably cost a lot more and be less reliable. Surprisingly, productivity tools for knowledge workers have tended to make them less productive.
There are several factors that can be identified in this.
People have desktop tools that enable them to spend a lot of time processing data. We can now churn out position papers, background briefings and sales proposals that would have astounded our forbearers. That is until they actually read them. Anybody who has recruited people will know what an eye-opener it can be when you ask candidates to supply a hand written page of A4 about why they want the position and consider themselves a suitable candidate. As someone who is involved in constructing sales proposals, I dream of being a customer and asking my suppliers to explain in one hand written page why they think they should get the business and then asking them to come and present this without using a single PowerPoint slide.
People like to be busy. We make a displacement for the meaninglessness of our work, with the sheer volume of it. It is a sort of therapy on the company’s time. Many people like to be busy at work, where you have a certain level of seniority and respect and where problems tend to be fairly easy to sort out and you can be seen as some sort of hero. This is in stark contrast to home where none of these factors are true.
People like to be viewed as indispensable. Everyone knows in his or her heart of hearts that no one is indispensable. We are just small cogs in the wheel. Yet I often visit companies that if one or two people left the organisation the flow of information would stop. They are the only people who have any understanding of how the inter-locking spreadsheets that produce everything from the final management accounts to project profitability fit together and work. The funny thing is that these people are usually quite junior in the organisation and do not seem to be behaving this way for the money.
The costs of producing information in organisations are often hidden. No one really knows what it takes to produce information in the business. How many people have handled the final numbers and how much time have they spent in handling the data.
It may be that these productivity tools are actually part of an elaborate smokescreen. We assume that people want to know what the real situation of the business is. We have to ask whether this is realistic. Organisations are political structures in which people naturally want to exercise power. One of the questions I always ask executives is whether they, or their organisation, really do want business intelligence since it depends on a commitment to shared definitions, reliable and consistent measures and most importantly a willingness to base decisions on facts, not opinions dressed in numbers.