At NolijWork – we describe our solution as a “Work Coordination Platform for Knowledge Work”. In reality, we believe it has the potential to be much, much bigger than this, but you have to start somewhere. In future, our vision is to be closer to an “Operating System” for Knowledge Work – because of how different aspects of work are genuinely inter-related to one another.
So how did we get here? Looking back over the past decade or so, I’ve been a keen witness to this market, and my work has mainly involved thinking about how other people and organizations get work done.
In that time, I’ve been involved in delivering solutions to customers, I’ve participated in standards development in this domain, and I’ve also worked alongside marketing & sales to understand customer requirements across different sectors such as banking, insurance, legal and public sector.
It has been a unique journey, not one I could have predicted, but absolutely insightful seeing organizations’ challenges from multiple angles which has brought me to this position. During that time, I’ve discovered that the challenges that such organizations face are remarkably similar, irrespective of the sector involved.
“Work is Broken”
We often talk in terms of the “Future Of Work”, but the reality for many people, is that work is pretty broken. Some statistics suggest that up to 60% of work is “Work about Work” – which represents an incredible waste of resource. When you take into account things like average daily email statistics per person (>120 daily), before you consider instant messaging, meetings, video / conference calls etc – its amazing that anyone actually gets any work done!
There’s a lot of research out there, both historic but also current (on the back of the Covid pandemic e.g. from Microsoft, Gartner, McKinsey, Deloitte), combined with other very thoughtful and insightful writers considering how we work. The quick summary and painful reality is that everyone is constantly so busy trying to keep the show on the road, that we’ve not really improved how knowledge workers actually work, in fact if anything its been getting worse.
Meanwhile, as a result of the pandemic, the fear within the C-suite of workers working from home, was in reality, a fear of the unknown. Organizations simply have no idea how productive their staff are (or could be), but at least if you can see them in the office, you will have some handle on how things are going. Equally, if you don’t really have a good grasp on how it all “hangs together” today, then the last thing you want to do is to experiment with a different way of working! Few people want to “bet the farm” on the possibility of discovering a better way to work!
Whilst some statistics suggest that remote employees during the WFH period have been more productive, other studies suggest that that productivity has been accomplished on the back of working even more hours, with greater propensity for staff to burn out.
I would suggest that the one certainty from the WFH reality, is that the world of work didn’t stop spinning, and at least now we can break free of the shackles of a location-centric work reality. We have the possibility of trying out new realities to see how we can make work much better for all stakeholders, in all sorts of ways. So its not that the new reality is better, its just that we have permission to experiment to see how we can make it better.
Tools of the Trade
There’s a famous quote “We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.” In reality, there’s a lot of truth in this statement when we look at the modern workplace (physical and/or virtual). We have adopted tools like email, spreadsheets, collaboration technologies, video calling and pushed them beyond what they were ever intended to achieve!
The unfortunate truth is that we have tried to win this productivity battle simply by deriving new tools, and loading them onto the shoulders of our most valuable resources. Instead, what we have created is a “Tower of Babel” scenario within the modern enterprise, which accounts for some of that “work about work” overhead.
Organizations have also tried various technology initiatives over the years, whether it was top-down Business Process Management (BPM), which has largely failed to deliver on its promises, or more recently with bottom-up Robotic Process Automation (RPA). Equally aspects such as Process Mining have also come to bear and generated significant interest.
The value in solving the knowledge worker productivity challenge can be ascertained based on the market valuations of some of the companies targeting these challenges, such as UIPath (RPA) and Celonis (Process Mining), or indeed the acquisition of Slack by SalesForce; all of them running into the tens of billions of dollars.
Fixing work is both a challenging and valuable problem.
A Goldilocks Problem?
The author Cal Newport writes elegantly on topics around productivity, technology and knowledge work. In his recent book, “A World Without Email” he decries the so-called “hyperactive hive mind” approach, which essentially embraces a free-wheeling, continuous communication and interaction in order to get work done. The book is not specifically about email, it is challenging the style of work that we have evolved into in recent years, where there is little or no process involved.
The alternative approach, i.e. of a highly defined process-centric model is perhaps equally inappropriate. Often these are too rigid, too slow to define and deploy, do not reflect how people actually work, and represent the critical drawbacks of Business Process Management (BPM) when applied to Knowledge Work scenarios. Recently Professor Wil van der Aalst has also spoken specifically on the failures of such initiatives, particularly in how they do not reflect the richness of real human behaviour. Finally, in a constantly changing and accelerating world, organizations have less and less time to adapt to new realities, so technology which cannot address that ever decreasing time cycle will not prevail.
This would suggest perhaps, as with the Goldilocks approach – that a middle way is appropriate, i.e. just the right amount of process to bring sufficient rigor and control to what we do in work, without it overpowering what we do and how we do it, and of course achievable in a short time-cycle.
So What Are We Missing?
One quote from Newport’s recent New Yorker article in late 2020 may provide some hints at where we should be looking “Imagine if, through some combination of new management thinking and technology, we could introduce processes that minimize the time required to talk about work or fight off random tasks flung our way by equally harried co-workers, and instead let us organize our days around a small number of discrete objectives.”
That same article also references Peter Drucker, the legendary management consultant who has been insightful on so many topics in this area. His quote “The most important contribution management needs to make in the 21st century is similarly to increase the productivity of knowledge work and knowledge workers.” Drucker was comparing what modern managers should deliver productivity-wise in respect of knowledge work, when compared to what Scientific Management accomplished in the early 20th century for manufacturing.
Regrettably we are still trying to apply some of the approaches from Scientific Management to modern Knowledge Work environments. Irrespective of what one thinks of Scientific Management (and its treatment of workers) the simple reality is that you cannot apply what worked for “Work of the Hands” to “Work of the Head”. Equally that approach really only works through measures such as keeping employees together in a physical context (i.e. the office), and expecting employees to compensate for the inefficiency of the modus operandi through extended working hours – often in the context of out-of-hours and weekend working to actually get work done.
As a result of the impending reality of hybrid working models, organisations must either embrace new modes of working in the short term, or will be forced to embrace it eventually when no alternative approach remains. The work genie is out of the bottle – and its not going back!
New Management Thinking
So the simple question is what is this new management thinking that might unlock this new reality?
NolijWork believe that quite simply – its all about HOW we define work for this modern era, (not as a conceptual matter, but in a practical manner). i.e. how do we define “how people come together to get work done”? This phrase is used quite commonly to pose this type of question, but in reality, even this phrase is somewhat incorrect, because in fact it’s not just about people, its also about people and technology, and perhaps more besides. So any model needs to take account of that reality.
Historically industry has tried to define work as a series of activities, often strung together to represent an end-to-end process. Again, the process & activity model is very much a legacy artefact from Scientific Management. The flow chart, for example, now celebrates its centenary this year, and it most certainly was not created to represent knowledge work! Perhaps herein lies the key flaw that has been holding us back, we have endeavoured to model “Work of the Head” using techniques which applied to “Work of the Hands” (via Scientific Management) where work could be atomised, scaled and eventually automated.
With many cognitive tasks – there simply is no way to translate them into a series of atomic activities or tasks. We need new concepts upon which to define knowledge work, which are comprehensible and agile for the modern work environment.
At NolijWork we believe we’re on our way to achieving that goal of a more appropriate way of defining work, which can be applied broadly to modern knowledge-centric work. New technology, in the absence of new thinking, just leaves us with another tool to contend with.
The Work Graph
Taking that new thinking and approach to the next level, such work when completed across an organization can be agglomerated into what has been referred to as a “Work Graph”, which is a bit like the “route map” for how work gets done within the enterprise.
The benefit of such a model is that individuals and managers can participate and observe the specific elements of the Work Graph which are pertinent to their role, whilst senior management have a lens, (or perhaps prism?), through which to understand how their organization truly functions.
Furthermore, when operational data from actual operations is combined with the possibilities of both statistical techniques and machine learning, this then creates a virtuous circle of re-engineering the organization on a constant basis.
At NolijWork, we’re excited to be working on this challenge at this particular inflection point, and about these future possibilities, and are already making good progress towards that goal. Some of this is now reflected on our web-site.
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