Thursday 23 July 2020

Free access to knowledge, or structured access to knowledge?

Here is another excellent article from Tom Davenport, one of the clearest writers on the topic of Knowledge Management, making the case for a structured "just-in-time" approach to the supply of knowledge. 

Tom starts his article as follows:
In the half-century since Peter Drucker coined the term “knowledge workers,” their share of the workforce has steadily grown—and so has the range of technology tools aimed at boosting their productivity. Yet there’s little evidence that massive spending on personal computing, productivity software, knowledge-management systems, and much else has moved the needle. What’s more, a wide variety of recent research has begun suggesting that always-on, multitasking work environments are so distracting that they are sapping productivity.
He goes on to contrast two approaches to the provision of knowledge

  • A "free access" approach where the organization provides free access to a wide variety of tools and information resources, assuming that the individual employees will do the selecting, prioritising and filtering and find the knowledge they need to conduct their work. 
  • A "structured" approach where knowledge is delivered in the context of tasks and delivereables, providing just in time knowledge at the point of need. In this case the prioritising has been done before the knowledge reaches the knowledge worker. 
Long-term readers of this blog will recognise these options as the "knowledge firehose and the knowledge faucet", or will recognise the second as the lean knowledge supply chain. The first rapidly overwhelms the knowledge worker, the second efficiently provides the knowledge they need with no additional waste. 

However Davenport adds a nuance. He suggests that the free access approach may be valid among the autonomous knowledge workers with high levels of expertise, who can invest the time and energy needed to filter the firehose and draw out the selected nuggets which may make a subtle difference. 

The problem with providing free and unstructured knowledge to all knowledge workers is the associated productivity loss. Here are some of Davenport' statistics.

  • One survey revealed that over a quarter of a typical knowledge worker’s time is spent searching for information.
  • Another found that only 16 percent of the content within typical businesses is posted to locations where other workers can access it.
  • Average knowledge workers access their e-mail more than 50 times, use instant messaging 77 times, and visit more than 40 Web sites a day.
  • A UK study suggests that social-media use by knowledge workers costs British companies £6.5 billion a year in lost productivity.
Davenport contrasts this with the structured supply of knowledge using workflow technologies. Here productivity is the major gain - by providing people with the knowledge they need without them even having to look for it, task-based productivity can rise by 50%. The downside of these systems is the lack of a personal touch - the lack of the social component. 

However there is always a combined approach. Through Connect and Collect we can provide a push-based supply chain of explicit knowledge to the knowledge workers, linked to their task workflow (or prompt them to pull structured knowledge from a structured knowledge base) and in parallel allow them to pull unstructured tacit knowledge from a community of practice.  A Knowledge Management Strategy can be used to determine the balance between these two approaches for different knowledge topics. 

 Davenport concludes his article as follows:

It’s time to think about how to make [the knowledge workers] more productive by imposing a bit more structure. This combination of technology and structure, along with a bit of managerial discretion in applying them to knowledge work, may well produce a revolution in the jobs that cost and matter the most to contemporary organizations

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