Improving Things for Knowledge and Information Workers

Knowledge and information workers don’t produce physical product. They are paid to use their brains – leveraging a domain of knowledge, ways of thinking, ways of approaching a problem, ways of creating solutions to problems, and so on. There’s a mental process at the core of how such people deliver value, even if there’s a physicality to how that value is delivered (such as a document, report, slide deck, article, etc.).

The “factors of production” for knowledge and information workers are intangible and largely invisible. Yes, there is likely to be a computer and smartphone (among other devices), some apps, a line of empty coffee cups, and … perhaps some pens, paper and Post-It Notes. But these are only supportive of the knowledge and information process, not primary to them. The primary tools are mental thinking models, learned patterns of approaching a problem, and concentration to build mental models and solve problems in the mind.

How do we improve the productive capacity of a knowledge and information worker? It’s a tough question since so much is intangible and invisible, but my answer is that strengthening the processes that form the intangible and invisible is the primary way of doing that. Which means:

  • Better ways of thinking about problems, such as better questions to understand the problem domain, better content mastery in the domain itself, and better ways of structuring what you hear and learn. Idea mapping, mind mapping, and even dialogue mapping provide tools for doing this. As do checklist to prompt and guide thinking, so as to ensure nothing is neglected.
  • A greater ability to concentrate and focus on problems and finding answers to problems. This could be clarity on what the problem is (hence reducing mental confusion), or a concentration-friendly environment in which to work with few interruptions and distractions. Like seeds in the garden, mental models and ideas need quiet space in which to grow and develop, and interruptions break them very quickly.

If we accept the above as being true, then the prescription for most knowledge and information workers would be:

  • Health and wellbeing are essential. You can’t perform at work if your body is stuffed. Fresh air. Walks. Exercise. Good nutrition. Enough sleep. Etc.
  • Providing the space and place for practicing knowledge and information processes is essential. Such work spaces should prioritise focus, concentration and quietness when required, and the ability to interact with others as and when needed. But interruptions, disruptions, and unwarranted / unwanted background noise are minimised or eliminated.

I have spent much the past couple of decades consulting on approaches for strengthening collaboration, and I do believe good tools and better approaches help with knowledge and information work. But there is an equally – or more so – complement to opportunities for collaboration, and that’s space for solo work. Of ceasing to talk and starting to work.

P.S. So the nuance is about relative importance, and that you can’t have all collaboration nor all concentration in the quietness. Both are required. But open offices, social media, enterprise social tools, apps with relentless notifications, group chat tools and more … have pushed the modern worker too far into the realm of collaboration. We need to find a new balance that actually works.

P.S.S. Ask yourself this question: What would enable me to improve my work? In 2018, is the answer more collaboration, interaction, distractions, disruptions and interruptions? Or something else?

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