The Discreet Charms of the North American Knowledge Worker

Over a very pleasant meal yesterday, my lunch partner and I began to exchange ideas about how best to manage knowledge workers. Quite a challenge, we both agreed, and leaning toward hell when you need to manage knowledge workers against a deadline. This topic deserves more careful consideration, I thought, but given that I’m not in a position to do that right now, a blog posting will have to do.

How to attack the problem? Taxonomies can be useful. I’ve always said the first and extremely important step in analysis is putting things into categories. (Gathering information and studying it are also necessary, but these really are the key steps in research, not analysis.) So for your consideration, RecoveringFed offers the following schema for knowledge workers, at least certain pathologies among them, based on my 25-year career in managing them. (Caveat: These categories are largely based on managing knowledge workers responsible for writing papers. (shudder…) Many knowledge workers, (most?) are still judged against this metric, which I believe for the most part is unfortunate, because there are many more interesting and meaningful ways to measure the impact and productivity of knowledge workers. I am also hopeful that new technologies, represented most recently and dynamically by the iPad, will finally break the absolute bond that written argumentation has on our knowledge culture. All that said, many of the same issues that affect writing also apply to other presentational approaches, such as briefings or multimedia work. In the end, a knowledge worker is justified by sharing her knowledge to achieve or help others reach a desired outcome. Usually that sharing occurs within the context of a deadline.)

And now for the categories…

1. The Dustin. Stereotypically, analyst types are considered to be introverts with deficient social skills. In the extreme, some knowledge workers appear to be borderline autistics, who fail to make eye contact in conversations and lock themselves in their offices to meditate upon their work. Either they demand absolute quiet or can only work with some head-banging music on in the background. Not particularly effective in brainstorming sessions. (Named for Dustin Hoffman and his signature role in The Rain Man.)     Management Approach. Largely TBD by whether they are productive or not. But it is probably not wise to force them into settings and activities that make them uncomfortable. One rule of thumb I always used in management: I am not here to change your personality. If your parents didn’t succeed, there’s little chance any of my interventions will work.

2. The Organizer. I know you’ve met this individual. She is the one who researches the topic to the nth degree, always has a full list of conferences and seminars she can attend to get smarter, usually takes copious research notes and prepares extensive outlines, but somehow never actually makes much progress on the paper or presentation itself. Chatty organizers can be particularly problematic, because they will chat up everyone on the team with their latest research discovery, creating the appearance of progress but preventing its actual attainment. Often when they do try to reach conclusions, organizers find it quite difficult to distinguish the salient from the merely interesting. They are often unable to write for impact because they can’t see the forest for the trees. Management Approach. This is a case where more imaginative job design and collaborative work approaches can maximize the contribution of the organizer. Create the expectation that all research results will be deposited within a collaborative platform available to all. That way, her colleagues can make maximum use of her contributions. (Think about it. Shouldn’t this be standard operating procedure in almost all knowledge work?) Look at the expectations that you have on employees. Why does every knowledge worker have to independently produce a paper or briefing? If research is her strength, build upon it.

3. The Expert Pontificator. In some ways similar to the organizer, except that the EP, unlike the organizer who really does like to research and discover new stuff, usually huffs and puffs based on ideas harvested a long time ago in a galaxy far away. (I was going to call this type the Huffer-Puffer, the term I’ve used in the work place, but I didn’t think the meaning would be obvious.) There’s not much more really that needs to be said about the EP who, unlike the previous two types, is often not productive at all in my experience.  Unlike the Dustin, who just doesn’t participate in brainstorming sessions, the EP is capable of destroying them. Management Approach. It is important that you not allow the EP to dominate discussions and inhibit other team members. Talking privately to EPs about their behavior never works; they are impervious. But politely but firmly telling them in a meeting that it is time for others to speak usually works, although it may make them angry and lead them to sulk which, at least tactically, gets you what you wanted anyway–they shut up. (Remember the language: “it is time for others to speak” not “you’re dominating the discussion. let others talk.” Don’t personalize it.) Also, it is important for other team members to see you tackle the issue. As a manager you are judged by whether you tackle the hard problems directly and when you fail to do so, you diminish your leadership bank account. Another benefit accrues when you tackle the issue–the other team members become empowered to handle situations themselves because you have clearly established the norms of behaviors. In fact, perhaps the only hope of getting through to EPs and thus create the conditions that will motivate them to change is if they begin to hear the same constant message from everyone.

4. The Dominator. There is a striking difference between the EP and the Dominator; the Dominator actually knows his stuff and tends to have a low tolerance for those he considers less capable . (This is also different from the EPs, who actually like to be with people who are not capable because they are more likely to form the fawning audience.) Dominators are almost always productive because they are in fact competent; but their presence can stifle the development of other knowledge workers and lead to group think around the Dominator’s preferred solutions. Dominators epitomize the paradox of expertise–they are often the last ones to detect systemic change because they are such export defenders of the current paradigm. Dominators can be wrong but their usual expertise with rhetorical techniques can overwhelm the argument of others even when in the end they will be proven correct. Management Approach. Some of the same techniques you used with the EP are necessary with Dominators, but you need to be careful because they are productive and necessary voices on your team. Just because they are cocksure doesn’t mean they are wrong. One technique you might try is asking dominators to create Team B analysis to argue against the prevailing wisdom. If you make the task rewarding and very competitive (dominators love competition), they may actually do a very good job of tearing down their own arguments. It could just be a learning experience for them.

The next three categories in the schema deal more specifically with the productivity part of knowledge work, i.e. these types describe styles in preparing presentations against a deadline. They can be used in conjunction with the previous four categories, so, for example, you can have a dominator who is a crammer and an organizer who passes the trash. (Which gets me to think that an individual’s cognitive style can also be laid over these categories; there are many dimensions to knowledge work and I am in fact only covering a slice of it in this posting.)

5. The Vester. You’re a manager, you check with your team member who tells you that the paper due to the client in one month is already well underway. You chat about it again in two weeks and yup, we’re still on track but no, he doesn’t have anything to show you yet.  Essentially the same answer a week later; not only have you not seen anything, neither have any of his colleagues. When you and the others finally see the presentation a couple of days before the deadline, it is just not as good as you expected, there are significant conceptual issues, and the whole project would have benefited from others input much earlier on in the process. The Vester is the knowledge worker who wants to do everything privately, who keeps everything close to his vest, and yet is not always capable of executing well enough by himself,  putting aside for now the reality that in almost all knowledge work projects, the product that benefits from several inputs will be better than the single-threaded one. Management Approach. This is particularly difficult type because 1. it is common and 2. generally it is incentivized by our reward and recognition system. Knowledge workers want to be single or primary authors because they are not stupid and seek to maximize their rewards and recognition. One of the approaches I used, and to be honest I don’t know that I had as much success as I wanted, was to tell colleagues their performance would be judged not by how absolutely perfect their product was, but by whether their results were in line with what I expected from someone of that experience and background. So, for example, drawing implications out for a client is usually much more difficult than describing the possible solutions spaces. And I would point out that spending two weeks trying to get a difficult bit right was not a very smart use of their time if I or another team member could complete that particular task more efficiently. There’s much more to be said on this issue but in the interest of conciseness, which I’m afraid may already be a lost cause, I’ll move on.

6. The Crammer. This is me. This is my usual approach to working on projects. I don’t like to start writing until I know exactly what I want to say and mysteriously I often don’t know what I want to say until the night before the deadline. I’d like to think that I execute well, but I disappointed in my career. It is a high-risk approach to knowledge work. The most disconcerting part about being a crammer is that it also leads you into becoming a liar. I’ve had managers, for example, who were hoverers, who asked you every week, or more often, how your project was going. So every time, even though I may not even have put finger to keypad yet, I would invent some progress report–“yup, I did ten paragraphs this week.” When Knowledge Workers Lie!!! Management Approach. OK, some have suggested lying about the deadline. Your crammer is already lying to you; you are creating a vicious cycle. Or requiring them to turn in sections along the way. Also bad idea!! Usually crammers only do their best work when they are in that caffeinated, adrenaline surge of creativity. You may lose less hair as a manager in the short term, but the final product will suck. A better idea is to create another real deadline or event before the project deadline that forces the cramming to occur sooner. So for example, scheduling an important, desirable trip, conference that overlaps the deadline is always a good idea. I’ve also found that crammers, at least the well-intentioned ones, work better when they are teamed with another colleague who is more methodical, particularly someone you know they have good rapport with. It is one thing to disrespect a deadline; another to disappoint a colleague. Another benefit for collaborative work design.

7. The Garbage-person. For my money, the worst type of knowledge worker, at least in terms of productivity. They don’t even try to do good work, unlike the inexperienced or poor performer who actually is not yet capable of better product. The garbage-person, who in some ways is a product of the dysfunctions of knowledge work,  has decided that, because the quality control and editorial process mangles her intellectual property and/or does her work for her, it’s not worth her time to even try. So she turns in work that represents the minimum possible effort. Management Approach. Here is another type who would benefit from working in a more transparent, collaborative environment. One, the example of others work may penetrate. (cross your fingers) Two, contributing to the projects of others may be more rewarding and rekindle in them the desire to do good work of their own. But let’s not kid ourselves. The garbage-people are hard cases; they are cynics, which is  the most destructive force in a team.

My outline had me making a few more generic points about managing knowledge workers, but I’m sure I’ve exhausted your patience as a reader. I know I’ve exhausted my energy as a writer. Next post!!!

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2 responses to “The Discreet Charms of the North American Knowledge Worker

  1. Similar to this post I just stumbled upon this evening.

    Is your app an ass-kisser?

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