The Case for the Prosecution

First let me say, that this piece is definitely NOT intended as an academic discussion. Thus, I invite you to reflect on the reality of work from YOUR own individual perspective, or from statistics that are readily available, or indeed from authors whose job it is to consider how we spend large swathes of our waking lives.

As individuals, (managers or otherwise), many experience long working hours, a typically overflowing email inbox (never mind chat messages), too many hours spent in meetings (physical or virtual). Meanwhile, keeping all the plates spinning is just part of the daily job. Threats to our wellbeing such as stress and burnout are well recognised by both employees and employers within the modern workplace.

Statistically, take your pick from any or all of the following, as just the tip of the iceberg:-

In the book “Time, Talent, Energy”, Michael Mankins (of Bain & CO) describes this challenge, for which they have introduced a particular title and quantify the problem thus “Organizational Drag is a Killer, costing the typical company at least 20% of its productive capacity”.

Finally, the author Cal Newport decries how we work today, serving up multiple examples in his books such as “Deep Work” and “A World without Email”.

So, I trust that you agree, the opportunity for improving HOW we work is both real and imperative for all our sakes.

Work Evolves, but it isn’t a Spectator Sport

How we work doesn’t stand still. If there’s any doubt about that point, just consider the radical changes many have experienced in work from early 2020, when large swathes of the population abruptly started working from home. But radical change in the workplace is rare, we are more exposed to incremental change in how we work, particularly given the timescales involved.

Perhaps what’s more important to consider, is that how we PERCEIVE and THINK about work is also framed by our own personal experiences, during our individual working lives, because we are constantly right in the middle of any ongoing transformation.

Equally, we have all been active participants in perhaps the biggest work experiment ever conducted, which will be analysed and discussed for years to come, setting the scene for even more changes in our working lives.

Hence, few can be dispassionate observers with a rational viewpoint on the world of work, we are active participants in this daily cut and thrust of work, experiencing everything from a perspective “WITHIN the machine” so to speak.

The Evolution / Revolution of Work – the Longer Term View

To understand the evolution of work and how it impacts our perceptions, we need to look back, way back.

Work has clearly changed down through the centuries, whether it is through the Industrial Revolution centuries ago, Scientific Management in the early 20th century, the advent of the Information Age and indeed the impact of the Internet on how we work today.

It is a mere 50 years since Peter Drucker conceived terms such as Knowledge Work and Knowledge Workers, and technologies such as Email were first created, even in primitive form.

It is only natural that we apply the learnings and experiences from the past to what we do presently, that is the nature of being human and learning from our experiences.

However, when work changes radically, we often need to cast off legacy perspectives and derive new ways of thinking in order to adapt to a new future.

The “Activity” Problem for Knowledge Work

A specific problem with that particular approach for Knowledge Work is that we leverage experiences derived from an era several decades ago when “Work of the Hands” was the dominant model, and are applying it to “Work of the Head” which is now the predominant model within Western economies.

For example, undoubtedly many people are familiar with the “flow chart” model, which emerged exactly a century ago in 1921, as part of the manufacturing revolution of the early 20th century (Scientific Management / Taylorism). It was intended to describe how physical work would move progressively within the context of a factory environment, as employees performed highly specified activities to assemble the desired item.

With knowledge work, it is largely invisible and virtual; it is not physical and does not need to “move” anywhere. Equally the participants in knowledge work are largely autonomous (as outlined by Peter Drucker), unlike the assembly workers of the past who “serviced the assembly line”.

Ever since that manufacturing era, we often apply an activity-centric lens (derived from a manufacturing assembly approach) on all of the different ways in which we work, including knowledge work. Don’t get me wrong, activities have a place within knowledge work, but an over-riding focus on activities means that we try to decompose how people think and collaborate into an artificial assembly line approach, which grates with the experience of staff.  

The Drawbacks of an Activity Focus

There are a number of critical issues arising from an activity-centric focus on knowledge work

  1. If work just doesn’t particularly lend itself to Activity-centric modelling, then often there’s just no model at all in play. In these circumstances employees and managers are largely “winging it” or “flying blind”. Often, we might describe such an approach as “collaboration” where there is no clear means of work coordination.

  2. If Activity-centric modelling is applied in a limited way to knowledge work, it can prove inaccurate, whether as a result of natural variability, or because trying to describe knowledge work as “activities of the brain” doesn’t really fit. This results in a square-peg / round-hole experience for staff.

    Equally it can be somewhat challenging for employees to see the “big picture” when they are treated as “assembly workers” in an “information assembly line”.

    By way of comparison, workers in a manual assembly line do not typically need to understand the big picture, given the division of labour approach is employed!

  3. If we go even further, trying to fully specify knowledge work within an activity framework, this can create even greater issues.

    Knowledge workers feel they have lost all autonomy in their work, and the definition of the work either needs constant maintenance OR it becomes inaccurate very quickly. This can be as bad (or worse) than no system at all.

In summary – we can see that using an entirely activity-centric approach to knowledge work can be particularly problematic – irrespective of which level of abstraction we might settle on.

The Way Forward – Rethink Work

Our experience of Work is governed by how we “design” work.

The famous quote “We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us” (variously attributed to Winston Churchill, Marshall McLuhan and others) is a succinct explanation of the problem we have created for ourselves.

Some of our tools, e.g. like email, were designed for the purpose of communication, they were NOT designed for the purposes of coordinating work amongst valuable knowledge workers. However, our problem with email (& email overload) is just one direct example of the manifestation of the aforesaid quote.

With activity-centric tools, such as business process management, these too have challenges as described earlier, but also rigidity (not real world), complexity (to configure and use) and cost of adoption (effort to deploy and maintain) can also be significant drawbacks. 

At NolijWork we have been exploring this problem for some time now, and amongst the conclusions arrived at, are that a pure “activity” focus is too restrictive, other elements such as “Outcomes” need to be added to the mix. This is all part of a journey to rethink how we model, operate, manage and optimize work. More on this in a separate blog entry. 

To conclude for now, perhaps the author Cal Newport has identified what we need to do, to alter our working experiences…

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.

Cal Newport, article in The New Yorker – “The Rise and Fall of Getting Things Done”

Improving our working lives requires a combination of new thinking, combined with technology to support that approach! Surely that is a vision worth striving for…?

Leave a Reply