“Knowledge Work” is a phrase that we’ve all heard of, but scratch the surface and you’ll soon discover there is, in fact, no agreed definition of what knowledge work actually entails.

The phrase was coined originally by Peter Drucker some 50+ years ago, and despite the lack of a formal definition, Gartner estimate that there are now over 1 billion knowledge workers globally.

The lack of clarity around a definition may explain why we struggle to optimize how knowledge work gets done.

Well, rather than obsess about a definition, let me offer this simple framework with which to digest the different facets of knowledge work.

Breaking it into such constituent parts should make it easier to analyze work, and to see how our modern tools and technologies pertain to such knowledge work.

A Model for Knowledge Work

1. Undertake (Individual Task Performance)

This is the natural place to start. This represents the smallest and simplest scenario, i.e. where an individual undertakes a piece of work, perhaps entirely on their own from end-to-end.

For example, one might write a paper, or a book, and this could possibly be undertaken without any participation by others.

2. Collaborate (Work on a Shared Task)

It is rare that knowledge work is completed entirely independently, usually there are other participants who share the task, or are perhaps responsible for reviewing or updating the outputs of the task.

When you look for a definition of what “Collaborate[1]” means, you will find “to work jointly with others or together especially in an intellectual endeavor”.

Collaborate derives from latin, com- (“with, together, or jointly”) together with laborare (“to labor”) to form Latin collaborare (“to labor together”).

“Collaboration” has taken on a particularly broad and imprecise meaning with respect to technology, where it is not entirely clear where one technology might end, and another begins.

Is everything really, truly collaboration?

I would suggest that we should regard collaboration as being focused on shared (and usually synchronous) joint working – for example co-editing of documents or shared access to content, such as electronic file sync and share (EFSS) technology.

3. Communicate (Share Information)

In this instance, this is the delivery of information from one party to other(s). Email and file transfer systems are good examples of this, or perhaps this is the delivery of information in electronic or printed form.

Communication is usually bi-directional (dependent on context), but equally it may just be dis-semination of information i.e. uni-directional.

4. Coordinate (To Organize with Others)

I would suggest that this particular aspect, is in fact a very significant and important element of knowledge work, yet we rarely, if ever, refer to work coordination per se.

In reality, I believe that we have rather carelessly “lumped” this in under the heading of collaboration, when it is, in fact, discrete. As an example of this categorization, would you consider Project Management (or a Project Manager) as an example of Collaboration, or Coordination?

According to Wikipedia “Project management is the process of leading the work of a team to achieve all project goals within the given constraints. The primary constraints are scope, time, budget. The secondary challenge is to optimize the allocation of necessary inputs and apply them to meet pre-defined objectives.

The project manager is unlikely to be doing the core work itself, rather they are “guiding” others to perform the work in the most efficient or optimized ways possible. What would happen if projects did not have project management, which may seem rather rhetorical? In all likelihood it would be chaotic and inefficient, as resources fumble through the delivery, re-discovering inefficient ways of the past.  

So why then do we “lump” collaboration and coordination together as a single endeavor, and just call it all collaboration?

Perhaps it is because in knowledge work, there is no separate persona involved in the coordination activity, the “actors” themselves are also responsible for the coordination. Going back to Peter Drucker, he advised that “Knowledge workers have to manage themselves” and “they have to have autonomy.” These assertions are evidently correct for many reasons, not least that needing the equivalent of “project managers” to coordinate such knowledge work would indeed be a massive overhead for organizations, but it would also be a burden on the knowledge workers themselves. Yet in turn, in doing so, we have lost that separation and perspective on efficiency and effectiveness within the context of knowledge work.

This scenario may also explain the quoted statistic in some circles that “60% of work is “work about work””. i.e. the inefficient coordination of knowledge work consumes the lion’s share of the time available!

Humans, and the human brain, is a phenomenal source of ability and creativity. However, the human mind is NOT especially good at tracking or organizing things to be done, particularly when it is a subservient background role to the more creative and valued outputs of the mind.  It is believed that humans can only really manage a very finite number of such concurrent items, before they begin to interfere with the rest of our cognitive capacity.

This is why we at NolijWork would humbly suggest that the most important capability, i.e. Coordination, is perhaps also the most underserved capability within knowledge work.

This coordination capability is also the one that has been forced into the daylight, as a result of the lockdown of 2020/21. i.e. when employees are no longer face-to-face, or sat together in offices, coordination which was previously implicit has suddenly become explicit! Indeed, we have substituted an abundance of Zoom meetings for in-person meetings, to accommodate the coordination deficit.

Furthermore, as we evolve to #HybridWork rather than a return to old ways of working, this need for explicit coordination will only continue. I would suggest that as we exit “pandemic panic mode”, when our minds seek to adjust to a more sustainable way of working – we will seek to cede even more of this coordination activity to technology, to take care of it on our behalf.  

Isn’t it time that organizations wake up to the inherent inefficiency of how we do knowledge work, by recognizing that efficient coordination is an important objective in its own right?

Putting it all Together

It’s evident that knowledge work typically draws on ALL FOUR of these categories to some degree or other.

The individual tools and technologies we employ as part of knowledge work may focus on one or several of these discrete elements. Indeed, it is often the case that some tools are mis-used outside their core intent.

For example, email, which is primarily a communication tool, is often employed to fulfil some of the other roles for which it was never intended, e.g. it is a fairly crude collaboration mechanism, and is perhaps even less effective for coordination!

Moreover, the more tools that we throw at the problem, will often make the problem even worse! i.e. if we have MORE tools across which we seek to collaborate or communicate, this results in a technological “Tower of Babel”. In turn, this further increases the cost of coordination across the relevant participants.

At NolijWork, we’ve been re-imagining how work is organized to achieve a new reality, with a clear focus on how work is coordinated. Some of the approaches are rather simple, yet elegant, and upon reflection even rather evident; perhaps we’ve all just been looking at things the wrong way for far too long.

This brings us to the conclusion that the key missing ingredient for better knowledge work is Coordination, or to use an oft-quoted phrase “How People Come Together, To Get Work Done”.

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