IT (and KM) professionals need to refocus on some simple, novel, inexpensive technology applications that could dramatically enhance individual employee effectiveness, instead of trying to achieve unattainable organization-wide improvements with ever-shrinking budgets.

vconfThe fallout over HBR’s May, 2003 article IT Doesn’t Matter was short-lived in the literature, but the continued disgruntlement of business managers with the return on corporate IT investment continues, and the recession for technology companies, and especially for IT employees, is far from over.

Part of the reason for this, I think, is the lack of understanding by business managers of what has been happening in the last few years in IT, and what its potential new applications are. Business managers still think of IT in traditional terms and traditional applications: accounting, sales, and HR. This ignorance is mutual: Most people in IT don’t really understand the evolving needs, priorities, and worldview of business managers either, or what keeps them awake at night. To make matters worse, in most organizations neither group really understands the needs of front-line employees. Everyone, it seems, is unhappy with IT.

The ‘problem’ with IT is that it is bound, by tradition, job description and resource availability, to continue to do three things that perpetuate the ‘IT Doesn’t Matter’ reputation:

  • IT applications traditionally are designed to provide information ‘up and in’ (i.e. to management and the back office), rather than ‘down and out’ (to the people in the front lines who actually do most of the work). For that reason, line employees often feel that, because IT has never done anything for them, it probably can’t do anything for them. It’s valueless to most of the people in the organization.
  • IT applications continue to focus on solving yesterday’s business problems: data management, financial reports, regulatory compliance, automation of ‘forms’ that were of limited value in the first place. So now the real ‘customers’ of most IT applications aren’t senior managers either, but rather the accountants, the lawyers, the administrative staff, and external regulators.
  • IT departments continue to be burdened with the management and maintenance of cumbersome and obsolete ‘legacy’ systems. Both these systems and the new ones that replace them are frequently designed by ill-informed committees and hopelessly over-engineered. So much money and time goes into keeping these dinosaurs afloat, and layering additional complexity onto them as new regulations and policies are imposed, that there is no budget or energy left for novel applications. In many organizations, there are compelling reasons to abandon legacy systems entirely in favour of vastly simpler and more economical zero-based relacement systems, but new systems seem to inevitably add complexity and functionality, and entrench everything that was in the old system regardless of its value. The old over-built systems and the thinking that causes their replacements to be even more unnecessarily complex, are like anchors pulling IT down and suffocating new ideas and investment.

At the same time IT is grappling with these intractable problems, a relatively new discipline, Knowledge Management (KM) has emerged that has gotten itself into trouble by raising expectations that it could do three things (all of which were once expected of IT as well):

  • Improve the efficiency of business processes
  • Improve decision-making
  • Improve ‘organizational learning’

Few if any organizations have succeeded in doing any of these things in any systematic or sustainable manner. Most organizations have realized that the nature of most work that hasn’t already been automated is unique, and that there are no ‘standard’ business processes left. This was the same reason that Business Process Re-engineering ultimately failed. If every work activity is unique, every decision unique, every learning requirement and learning situation unique, no ‘system’ is going to make it otherwise, or better. These ‘value propositions’ for KM are, at least at the organizational level, simply unachievable.

Some KM pioneers (many of whom I’ve worked with over the past two or three years) are beginning to realize that the real opportunity for both KM and IT in the 21st century requires a refocus of energy away from organization-wide objectives entirely, and towards achieving the objective that Peter Drucker described as the number one business challenge in his book Management Challenges for the 21st Century: Improving the personal effectiveness of each individual front-line worker in doing his or her unique and increasingly complex job.

Professor Jim McGee has articulated this realization brilliantly in describing the challenges of KM:

The fatal flaw in thinking in terms of knowledge management is in adopting the perspective of the organization as the relevant beneficiary. Discussions of knowledge management start from the premise that the organization is not realizing full value from the knowledge of its employees. While likely true, this fails to address the much more important question from a knowledge worker’s perspective of “what’s in it for me?”. It attempts to squeeze the knowledge management problem into an industrial framework eliminating that which makes the deliverables of knowledge work most valuable–their uniqueness, their variability. This industrial, standardizing, perspective provokes suspicion and both overt and covert resistance. It also starts a cycle of controls, incentives, rewards, and punishments to elicit what once were natural behaviors.

Suppose, instead, that we turn our attention from the problems of the organization to the problems of the individual knowledge worker. What happens? What problems do we set out to solve and where might this lead us?

Our goal is to make it easier for a knowledge worker to create and share unique results. Instead of specifying a standard output to be created and the standardized steps to create that output, we need to start with more modest goals. I’ve written about this before (see Is knowledge work improvable?, Sharing knowledge with yourself, and Knowledge work as craft). In general terms, I advocate attacking friction, noise, and other barriers to doing good knowledge work.

These KM pioneers have had to completely re-think the function of infrastructure in organizations, and abandon ‘systematic’ organizational thinking to reach this realization. For several reasons, they’re not getting much traction:

  • They’re not especially trusted by either business managers (who are as disappointed with KM’s false promise as IT’s) or IT professionals (who often see KM as an intrusion on their turf);
  • They have to champion some fairly bold new ideas at a time when the interest of business managers in innovation has hardly ever been lower, and when budgets for IT are being cut, not increased;
  • Technology, and its economics and potential applications, are changing at a dizzying rate, and keeping up is difficult and a bit intimidating to non-techies (which most KM people are).

But there is a Holy Grail at the end of this thought process, one which could improve the careers and reputation of both IT and KM, if the two groups are prepared to work together, and with senior management and ‘front line’ leaders, to identify, articulate and design novel, inexpensive, and surprisingly simple new ‘TechKnowledgy’ applications that meet Drucker’s ‘Improve Individual Effectiveness’ challenge (the one in bold above).

Here are four examples of such applications that could have enormous business impact:

  • Locating and Connecting to People with Expertise: What most people most need to know, quickly and accurately, to be more effective in doing their jobs, is (a) ‘who knows what about x’, both inside and outside the organization, (b) what is the best way to contact those experts, and (c) where to ‘browse’ examples and evidence of their expertise. This is what Social Networking Enablement and Social Software offers. And the absolutely critical quality of this technology is that it can be completely personalizable, and can work exactly as each individual wants it to work.
  • Reducing the Need for Travel: Because of the clumsiness, unreliability and complexity of today’s videoconferencing technologies, individuals waste hours of time, expend a lot of unnecessary physical and psychological energy, and needlessly spend many nights away from home and family, to travel to events where physical presence is not required. There is an even greater loss, due to the inability of many people to attend and participate in learning events and conferences because they can’t afford the cost or time to travel to these events, or because of the physical capacity limits of the event space. We need new, intuitive, portable, entirely personally controlled video and ‘virtual presence’ webcam-type technologies (with capabilities such as backchanneling) to eliminate this waste and dramatically extend individual human capacity.
  • Enabling Multi-Tasking: Most people spend most of their work time waiting for things (like bloated Microsoft software), in unproductive activities (most meetings) and otherwise constrained by the physical and technical limitations of their work environment. As a result, their brain and work effectiveness is unnecessarily reduced by their worktools, many of which, ironically, were designed to ‘improve productivity’. New technologies are needed that allow individuals to fill in this ‘idle’ time by multi-tasking, simply, comfortably, and effectively. IM and e-mail allow multi-tasking during meetings, an enormous boon to work efficiency, and a simple example of such technologies.
  • Automating the Purchase and Sale of Commodities: An enormous amount of time is spent arranging, approving, documenting and processing very elementary business transactions that are needed to provide individual employees with the resources and tools they need to do their jobs. This also entails costly delays in getting these resources to the people who need them, and generates a huge amount of needless paperwork. What is needed are technologies that pre-authorize individual employees to make purchases from approved suppliers, automatically charge the expense to the appropriate accounts, and enable quick Amazon-style personal delivery to the employee wherever he or she may be. This would put every individual employee on an even footing with sole proprietors, which, in many respects, most employees effectively operate as anyways. Zero delay, zero paperwork, and tapped into new internet technologies that are designed precisely to handle sale of commodities to individuals in a cost-effective manner.

There are undoubtedly many other such technologies that could be developed and implemented quickly, inexpensively and powerfully by IT and KM teams working together — these four are just examples off the top of my head. They apply to every type and size of organization, since they are personal — they help individuals work better, rather than trying to improve whole business units or organizations.

How could further examples of such technologies be identified, and each tool properly spec’d out to meet employee needs? Here are some Management Consulting 101 techniques that could be used:

  1. Bring together IT, KM, senior management, and a cross section of front-line employees for a facilitated information exchange session. Have senior management describe the major organizational challenges and priorities. Have IT talk about some of the new frontiers and developments in IT, like Weblogs and Social Software, and explain how the new economics of IT allow rapid prototyping and inexpensive development of novel applications. Have the front-line employees describe the impediments they face trying to do their jobs, and what they need to do their jobs more effectively. Allow the KM and IT teams to proffer some ‘what if’ scenarios.
  2. Have the KM team develop a future state vision that articulates, from the perspective of several individual employees, how new developments in IT could be applied to improve personal performance and effectiveness, and as a result solve some of the identified challenges and priorities of senior management. Get buy-in from senior management (on the desirability of this vision), from IT (on the achievability of this vision), and from the front-line focus group (on whether the vision is realistic and will, if it works as advertised, significantly improve effectiveness.
  3. Bring the three teams together again for a design and co-development session to bring the vision to fruition. Get the technologies approximately right, not perfect, and into the field as quickly as possible so they can be piloted, evaluated and refined rapidly and inexpensively.

None of this is rocket science. It’s not being done today simply because IT is unaware of the need and distracted from the opportunity, senior management is unaware of the possibilities, and everyone is unaware of the problems of ‘real’ users on the front line. With the right team, and a dash of courage and vision, everyone could win: beleaguered IT and KM staff, disgruntled senior management, and frustrated front-line employees.

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5 Responses to WHAT GOOD IS IT?

  1. Rayne says:

    Easiest way to make the case for IT’s value? Have another blackout, sustain it for a week or so and tell people to try to stay in business without IT. Heh.

  2. This is an interesting post, but I’m afraid the statement “Most organizations have realized that the nature of most work that hasn’t already been automated is unique, and that there are no ‘standard’ business processes left” is simply not true.There are plenty of standard processes awaiting automation. Britain’s National Health Service (the largest organisation in Europe) provides just one good example. It’s top three IT priorities are:1) The elimination/reduction of paperwork.2) The implementation of electronic patient records.3) The implementation of electronic appointment-setting (between doctors and patients) on-line.What is not standard about those tasks? For the NHS and its millions of customers, they absolutely common, everyday activites. And the NHS is not alone; neither France nor Canada have electronic patient records as yet.Telecom companies, as well as many utilities, have enormous room for improvement on billing. See http://www.kevinlaurence.net/weblog/000014.html for an amusing example.I’m afraid that most organisations are not nearly as advanced as you think!

  3. Right now, one of the concrete needs driving the market for collaboration and knowledge management solutions is exception handling within structured workflow – e.g., the ability of a call-center drone to initiate an IM session with someone in product development while they have a troublesome customer on the line, or to do something ad-hoc that their form-driven business environment does not permit. Effective teaming for knowledge workers is important, but it’s a smaller slice of the market, and harder to quantify, than line-of-business tasks. Fortunately, what we’re seeing is that collaboration is moving from specialty apps and stand-alone products to infrastructure: platform (MS) and middleware (IBM). I think in the short run, more large companies will get improved collaboration capabilities as a bi-product of business process automation improvements, rather than vice versa.

  4. David Jones says:

    Well I think IT is fully into IT and fully out of it. The recent discovery of “content” is, to me, one the the big jokes of the century. Just what do the IT professionals imagine those pipes and storage vats were for anyway?

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