Collaborative knowledge workers use ad hoc and changing work processes

A fascinating ethnographic study sponsored by IBM examines the collaborative processes used by knowledge workers to conduct their work. I’m intrigued by a key finding that many of these processes are ad hoc, created uniquely for the task at hand, rather than routinized procedures.

Knowledge workers make decisions and perform their work by drawing on a particular set of skills, knowledge, experiences, and intuitions. Although the work is dependent on the individual, process plays a major role. The work processes we observed differ from the enterprise-level processes in several ways:

  • These processes are rarely duplicated; some are ad hoc, some are semistructured, and all are in a state of change.
  • They are defined and owned by the knowledge worker.
  • The process cannot be codified; decisions are made by people and cannot be automated.

So often, large organizations try to standardized work processes so that workers are expected to perform a particular task in a certain manner. Command and control style managers tend to want to dictate how tasks are performed.

What this study finds is that knowledge work does not lend itself to standardization or micro-management. Instead, knowledge workers adopt processes that best allow them to produce the needed outcome or deliverable given their own work style.

This suggests to me that managers and team leaders can add value by helping knowledge workers to:

  • accurately assess the needs and constraints of tasks so as to better develop unique processes;
  • think creatively about posssible process alternatives;
  • feel comforatble with adapting and changing processes as needed;
  • know they are trusted to make process decisions.

Additionally, the study suggests that organizations benefit both by the knowledge worker’s productivity and by identifying best practices that can be used by other workers.

As we examined the life cycle of some of these human-centric processes, we observed, for example, that they may start out as ad hoc and informal processes but can quickly grow into best practices. This finding is corroborated by studies of activity-centric computing. Muller et al. found that work that begins as ad hoc and unstructured evolves over time into a semiformal process or a reusable pattern exemplifying best practices.

Take a look at the full report here.

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3 Responses to Collaborative knowledge workers use ad hoc and changing work processes

  1. nkilkenny says:

    Thanks for posting this. It’s good to have information/articles/studies to back up our thoughts and arguments. I’ve been a big advocate for collaborative work at my job.

  2. Natalie – I’m glad you find the post useful.

  3. Daily Report for August 15, 2007

    Stories about Collaboration User Revolt on SharePoint … In a recent discussion with a CxO executive, Todd discovered that while the IT department thought that SharePoint was a technical failure, the end users in the organization revolted when the CIO

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